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8.669140-41 - BARBER: Vanessa
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Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)



Samuel Barber was almost 48 years old when his first opera, Vanessa, was produced by the Metropolitan Opera Company on 23rd January, 1958. His success as a composer had come to him as a very young man, in the late 1930s, mainly through his orchestral works. Yet, his love of the human voice (he studied singing at the Curtis Institute and thought seriously of becoming a professional singer) inspired him to compose a great number of songs, many of which are standard repertory today. As a passionate devotee of opera from the age of six, when he was taken to the Metropolitan to hear Verdi’s Aida, with Caruso and with his aunt, Louise Homer, as Amneris, it does seem strange that it took him so long to tackle the composition of an opera himself, although there was the earlier work The Rose Tree, an unfinished work, written when he was nine to a libretto by his family’s Irish cook. Barber had expressed interest as early as 1934 in composing an opera on an American libretto. In 1942 he received two operatic commissions, one from the Metropolitan, which he refused, as the Met had already chosen a libretto that he found unsuitable, the other, which he accepted, from Serge Koussevitzky for a chamber opera to be produced at the Berkshire Festival. Dylan Thomas eventually agreed to provide a libretto, but both Thomas and Barber became involved with the war effort, and finally, nothing came of the chamber opera. The commission eventually became The Prayers of Kierkegaard, a work for chorus and orchestra.


After the War, the Metropolitan Opera again approached Barber, and he renewed his search for a librettist. In 1952, after unsuccessfully attempting to interest Thornton Wilder, James Agee, and Stephen Spender in the project, Barber’s life-long friend and companion, Gian Carlo Menotti, suggested that he would provide the libretto. An extraordinarily successful operatic composer in his own right, with Amelia al Ballo, The Old Maid and the Thief, The Telephone, The Medium, and The Consul to his credit, Menotti had previously only written texts for his own works; in fact, this is probably the only instance of a composer providing a libretto for another composer since the Boito-Verdi collaborations late in the nineteenth century. It was agreed that the Seven Gothic Tales of Isak Dinesen would provide the inspiration for the story, yet Barber would have to wait two years for even the first scene to materialise. He composed it during the summer of 1954, and begged his collaborator for more, but social and professional distractions prevented Menotti from further work on the libretto. The frustrated Barber then delivered an ultimatum: until he had the full libretto in hand, he would not compose another note. He later wrote in Opera News: “My tactic succeeded brilliantly; it made him so nervous that he sat on a rock by the Mediterranean every morning until, by summer’s end, what I think is perhaps the finest and most chiselled of his libretti was finished.”


Barber began concentrated work on Vanessa, a name he took from a book, How to Name Your Child, during the winter of 1956, when the Metropolitan announced that it would produce the opera. In October of 1957, Barber played (and sang) the completed sections for representatives of the Met and its General Manager, Rudolf Bing. Immediately discussions about casting began, and Barber attended many Met performances listening to singers who might possibly fill the various parts. Maria Callas, then at the height of her fame, was his preferred choice for the title rôle. Barber invited her to Capricorn, the home he and Menotti had built in Mt. Kisco, NY, and played through the score for her. Callas was unimpressed, feeling that the rôle of Erika was stronger than that of the protagonist, and she refused to consider it. It was finally decided that Sena Jurinac, the Yugoslavian soprano star of the Vienna State Opera and the Glyndebourne Festival would make her Met début as Vanessa. A lyric soprano renowned for her Mozart interpretations, Jurinac was also an extraordinary linguist and spoke excellent English. So too did the Swedish tenor, Nicolai Gedda, whom Barber had heard in Paris and felt was perfect for the rôle of Anatol. The other principals, Rosalind Elias, Regina Resnik, and Giorgio Tozzi, were American, and Metropolitan veterans. The première was announced for the 1957-58 season with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting. Menotti would be the stage director, and the English designer, Cecil Beaton, whose costumes for the musical, My Fair Lady, were so successful they started a fashion trend, would create both sets and costumes.


Barber spent the summer of 1957 in Italy, working together with Mitropoulos on the orchestration, and coaching Rosalind Elias in Rome and Jurinac in Vienna. In the fall, construction of sets and costumes started, and musical rehearsals began at the Opera House. By early December everything was in place and on schedule, when Jurinac sent word that she was ill, and cancelled her engagement. One can imagine the despair which everyone involved with the project must have felt. There was talk of postponement when Edgar Vincent, press agent to many operatic personalities, contacted Max Rudolf, the Met’s Coordinator, suggesting that there was one person who could “save the day”: Eleanor Steber. “She should have done it in the first place,” said Vincent. A star at the Met for fifteen years, Steber had often “come to the rescue” before. She had not sung at the House the previous season owing to a disagreement with Rudolf Bing over repertoire and the fact that she was being paid far less than European singers who sang her rôles. In September she had returned in triumph as Donna Anna in a new production of Don Giovanni, but she still felt that Bing was intent on easing her out of the company.


Barber and Steber already had made an historical collaboration ten years earlier with Knoxville, Summer of 1915, which the soprano commissioned, and of which she gave the first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There was also a somewhat subliminal connection in that Steber’s singing teacher, William L. Whitney, had been, early in his career, the teacher of Barber’s Aunt Louise. When Steber sang through the rôle with the composer, she felt “the part was made for me.” Indeed, listening to the original-cast recording, it is difficult to believe that every note was not tailored to her soaring soprano. With only five weeks to learn this fiendishly difficult part, Steber called upon every vocal and musical resource at her command. Much of her performing schedule was arranged and rescheduled, but many commitments, such as her annual Christmas Voice of Firestone television broadcast, had to be honoured. Then, in the middle of it all, she announced that she was getting married. Barber begged her to wait until after the première, fearing that the distraction would ruin his opera, but the soprano announced passionately that if she did not get married, “there wouldn’t be an opera!” And so, marry she did, with Barber and Menotti providing Capricorn for a quick honeymoon.


At the première, the new opera and its heroic heroine were rapturously received by a sold-out, celebrity-filled audience. Barber’s music and Menotti’s libretto and production were lavishly praised by the press, and Steber’s seemingly impossible feat was appreciated and lauded by everyone, including Rudolf Bing. Elias, Resnik, Tozzi, and Mitropoulos were singled out for enthusiastic praise, and the opera played to sold-out houses for the rest of the season, winning the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for music. It was in the Met’s repertory for the following season as well, and then performed in Baltimore and in Boston on their annual spring tour. The summer after the première, Vanessa became the first American opera to be presented at the Salzburg Festival, with most of the same cast, Menotti’s production, and Beaton’s sets and costumes. Although a great success with the public, the German and Austrian press were vicious in their organized condemnation, though they praised the singers, especially Steber and Gedda.


Menotti mounted the opera, in Italian, at his Spoleto Festival in 1961, and in 1978 the Met revived its production in a revised version by Barber. Steber was, by this time, long out of the Company, and the title rôle was assigned to the beautiful Mary Costa, who, sadly, was simply not up to it, though Barber had cut the impossibly difficult coloratura aria in the second act. After this, the opera lay dormant for over ten years when Menotti again revived it, this time in English, for the American Spoleto Festival in South Carolina, which was videotaped and shown on Public Television. Since then the opera has been seen in Washington, St. Louis, Seattle, and recently in Darmstadt, London, Monte Carlo and in New York.


As a young student, I saw the Met production in Boston. It remains one of the great operatic experiences of my life. In the grand third-act duet, Steber and Gedda sang with incredible passion and intensity. It was such a riveting experience... so overwhelming... indeed, almost too much to bear. Years later, when I recounted this to Eleanor Steber, she exclaimed, “How do you think we felt!”


Richard Conrad





Time: the early 20th century; winter

Place: An aristocratic country house in a northern European country


[Opening [1]]


ACT I, Scene 1

On a stormy winter evening, three women wait in a richly furnished drawing room for the arrival of a guest. They are Vanessa, a still-beautiful woman of middle age who, twenty years before had been involved in a passionate affair with a married man, Anatol. When he refused to leave his wife for her, she shut herself up in her elegant house, and covered all the mirrors so as not to observe in her own countenance the passage of time. Now she awaits Anatol’s return with nervous impatience. She is joined in her vigil by her mother, the Baroness, who has not spoken to Vanessa since her return, and by her niece Erika, an attractive inexperienced young woman.


[2] They plan the dinner menu for the morrow. [3] Erika attempts to while away the time by reading to the others. She chooses a passage from Sophocles’s Oedipus, but Vanessa insists that Erika does not know how to express the passion of a tragic hero and recites the passage herself. Vanessa tells the others to go to bed, while she waits alone. [4] Erika muses sadly on the early arrival of winter. Finally they hear the sound of an approaching sleigh. [5] Vanessa sends the others out of the room, in order to be alone with Anatol when he arrives.


Servants rush back and forth, carrying in the traveler’s luggage. Finally the door of the drawing room opens, and a man appears silhouetted there.

[6] Vanessa, with her back turned to him, tells him that, unless he still loves her, she will not let him look on her face and will ask him to leave at once. [7] The man replies simply, “Yes, I believe I shall love you.” But when Vanessa turns around, she sees that he is a stranger. She rushes out of the room in distress, calling for Erika.


[8] After helping her aunt out, Erika returns to confront the impostor. He explains that he is Anatol–the son of the man whom Vanessa had loved. All through his youth he has heard so much about this woman that, when his father died, he decided that he had to meet her. Erika sympathizes with Vanessa who, after so much waiting, will never see her lover again. Anatol sees the supper that was set for him, including his father’s favorite wine, and he sits down to eat it, inviting Erika to join him.


Scene 2


[9] A month later, on a sunny Sunday morning, Erika is explaining to the Baroness, her grandmother, that on the night of Anatol’s arrival, he seduced her. It was the only night she slept with him and now she finds that she both hates and loves him. Though Anatol has told her he loves her, she finds his words facile. In any case, he is presently ice-skating with Vanessa. [10] They come in for breakfast, glowing with happiness. The old family doctor arrives, happy to see the house “alive again,” and [11] recalling some of the parties in days gone by with a snatch of a waltz. [12]-[13] When the men leave, Vanessa offers a gushing confession to Erika: She has fallen in love with young Anatol and he, it seems, with her. She feels she has kept her youth just for him. [14] After Vanessa leaves, the Baroness tells Erika that she will have to fight to win Anatol, but Erika wants his love, not his capture. When Anatol enters, Erika demands to talk to him immediately, explaining that her grandmother knows everything and is utterly discreet. She demands to know if he has in fact implied to Vanessa that he wishes to marry her. He points out that he has asked Erika to marry him, and does so again in the presence of the Baroness. [15] But he also makes it clear that his idea of love is easy-going, and most likely temporary. He is waiting for her answer when Vanessa comes to summon everyone to the chapel for Sunday service. Erika promises to join them shortly. [16] As the sound of the first hymn swells in the distance, Erika makes up her mind. “Let Vanessa have you–she who for so little had to wait so long.”


CD 2



[1] New Year’s Eve. The house has been decorated for a grand party, as in the old days. [2] The doctor is a bit tipsy and fears that he will muddle up the announcement he has agreed to make: the engagement of Anatol and Vanessa. [3] Vanessa herself is upset that her mother and Erika have refused to join the party. As the doctor goes upstairs to try to persuade Erika to join them, [4]-[5] Anatol and Vanessa share their thoughts on love’s “bitter core.” [6] The doctor returns, saying that Erika may come down a little later – but he tells Anatol privately that she had refused to speak to him at all.


The guests are shepherded off to the ballroom. As the hallway clears, Erika slowly begins to make her way down the stairs, listening to the announcement that the doctor is making to the assembled guests. Suddenly, as if very ill, Erika clutches at her stomach. When the doctor makes the engagement official, Erika faints on the steps. The Major-Domo finds her there and offers to fetch the doctor, but she asks him to leave. She wants to be alone. Once he has left, reluctantly, Erika opens the front door and runs out into the winter night, wearing just her ball dress, murmuring that Anatol’s child “must not be born.” The old Baroness comes down the stairs and goes to the door. She believes she has heard Erika’s steps in the snow, and she is afraid.


ACT III, Scene 1

Erika’s bedroom, a few hours later. [7]-[8] Vanessa torments herself for not having guessed at Erika’s love for Anatol. Search parties are out looking for her.

[9] They see a group of men coming back together. [10] Anatol has found her on the path to the lake and has carried her back to the house, unconscious but alive.[11] Vanessa asks Anatol if he knows why Erika acted so rashly. He is evasive, but when she attempts to pin him down, he says, “This much I know; she does not love me.” [12] When they have left, [13] Erika calls her grandmother and tells her that the child will not be born. Silently the old Baroness rises and walks to the door.


[[14] – Intermezzo]


Scene 2

The drawing room, two weeks later. % Anatol and Vanessa are going to live in Paris. [16]-[17] The doctor recalls events in Vanessa’s childhood, as he bids her farewell. [18] Vanessa has willed the house to Erika (but asks her not to tell Anatol). Erika promises to keep the house just as it was. Vanessa still seeks to know the truth about Erika’s actions on the night of her engagement. At Vanessa’s probing, Erika insists that it had nothing to do with Anatol. She says simply and evasively, “I thought I loved someone who did not love me.” [19] Vanessa, Anatol, Erika, the doctor, and the Old Baroness pause to consider that life is filled with love and with loss, with dreams and with partings. [20] Vanessa, Anatol, and the doctor leave. Finally Erika is left alone with her grandmother, who no longer speaks to her. [21] She summons the Major-Domo and asks him to make everything as it was before. All the mirrors are to be covered. She will receive no one. It is now her turn to wait.


Steven Ledbetter

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