Out of the past Santa Fe Opera opens Samuel Barber’s Vanessa
SAMUEL BARBER’S VANESSA MUSIC BY SAMUEL BARBER. LIBRETTO BY GIAN CARLO MENOTTI. PREMIERE: JANUARY 15, 1958, METROPOLITAN OPERA, NEW YORK CITY. SUNG IN ENGLISH.
ON January 16, 1958, the morning after Samuel Barber’s Vanessa received its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, critic Howard Taubman of
The New York Times declared it to be “the best American opera ever presented at the stately theatre on Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street.” The bar, he admitted, was low. “The nineteen other American works ventured by the Met in the last half-century were not exactly for the ages.” But this one, he felt, had some special qualities. “It is professional; it has atmosphere; it builds to a moving climax.” What’s more, “the gala audience behaved as if it found ‘Vanessa’ not only an event but a pleasure.”
The work has nonetheless failed to secure a footing in the standard repertoire. Only four commercial recordings of it seem to have ever been released since its introduction nearly six decades ago — two of them in the 1950s (one captured at a live performance), the others in the early 2000s. The opera is revived sporadically, mostly at regional companies in the United States, and whenever it is, opera goers tend to applaud vigorously and wonder why it doesn’t show up more often. Indeed, the production Santa Fe Opera unveils this weekend will be its first, notwithstanding the company’s long and deep involvement with American opera. That presents an unusual opportunity for viewers, many of whom will be able to encounter the piece without any previous exposure, knowing little if anything about its story and largely unfamiliar with its music. That is rarely possible with standard operas, and it is so exciting a prospect that one might encourage uninitiated readers to stay that way until they go. Attendees who are intent on prepping may do so easily enough by reading the synopsis posted on the company’s website; but we are going to reveal little about the specifics of the plot.
This was Barber’s first opera, and it had been a long time coming. As early as 1942, he had been offered commissions for two operas, one of them from the Metropolitan Opera. That would be a serious temptation for any young composer — Barber was born in 1910 — but he didn’t care for the libretto they wanted him to set and therefore declined the invitation. The other offer came from the Berkshire Festival, and Barber arranged for Dylan Thomas to write the script. But World War II got in the way, and after the war the project never got back on track. The composer pondered other projects as the years passed, collaborations with Thornton Wilder, with Stephen Spender, with James Agee (from whom Barber derived the text for his nostalgic masterpiece Knoxville, Summer of 1915). None bore fruit.
In the end, the libretto for Vanessa would be penned by Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber’s professional confidant and romantic companion for many years, although by that time their personal relationship had moved to a complicated, open-ended phase. The story they came up with was inspired by Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic
Tales, although that source provided a general atmosphere rather than any essentials of plot or characters. Those tales not being widely known today, we may be more likely to note the opera’s kinship to plays by Chekhov or Ibsen, set as it is in an unnamed “northern country about 1905.” Maybe it shares some common ground with Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, but with a far smaller infusion of levity. It is not a ghost story, although the characters do sometimes seem to be living in, or attaining, a ghostlike state. Nonetheless, there is something so creepy about the world of Vanessa that the lyric standard it may resemble the most, at least spiritually, is the best of all operatic ghost stories, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Seeing Vanessa can seem oddly like watching a movie from the 1940s or ’50s, something film-noir-ish involving crimes of the heart. It is surprising that it has never been turned into a Hollywood film, but I don’t think it has.
Menotti was also a composer, so all sorts of sounds filled the air when Barber began writing Vanessa at the home the two shared in Mt. Kisco, New York, a frequent destination for visitors. “Menotti was working on something,” Barber recalled. “I was starting
Vanessa. Thomas Schippers [the conductor] was learning Salome, and there was someone else.” At least it was a great convenience for the composer and the librettist to be only steps away from each other. Menotti proved not just an adept librettist but also one intimately attuned to what would delight his collaborator. Charles Turner, who was Barber’s pupil for five years in the 1950s, said, “The libretto of Vanessa was tailor-made for him, with little details specifically for Sam. Things like the man who borrows a comb — Sam never had a comb and always had to borrow one. And Sam loved being read aloud to — that’s why that’s in there, I suppose. The waltz, too; that’s the kind of dancing he liked. He liked to waltz, the only kind of dancing I knew him to do.”
By October 1957, the piece was far enough along to merit a read-through at the Metropolitan Opera, which would be giving the premiere. In a 1979 interview that turned out to be Barber’s last, the composer told the music critic Allan Kozinn: “I remember bringing the score to Rudolf Bing, at the Met, and having to play it for him on the piano, singing all the parts, while he turned pages. That was not an easy job!” Discussion about casting began at the same time. Barber hoped that the title role might go to the redoubtable Maria
Callas. A coloratura aria about ice skating, “Our arms entwined,” was apparently written as an inducement, but she decided to take a pass. This may have been because, even though she was an American by birth and lived in New York until she was fourteen (a point she chose not to emphasize), she was reluctant to sing a role in English. Barber suspected that her refusal had more to do with the fact that the mezzo-soprano role of Vanessa’s niece, Erika, offered a level of competition that made Callas uncomfortable; and, indeed, most viewers will probably find Erika a more sympathetic character than Vanessa — an ambiguity Callas could not have tolerated.
The sold-out premiere was greeted ecstatically by the Met’s audience, and nearly all the critics joined the
Times’ Taubman in their assessments of the new work. Winthrop Sargent, music critic of The New Yorker, found it to be “the finest and most truly ‘operatic’ opera ever written by an American … one of the most impressive things … to appear anywhere since Richard Strauss’s more vigorous days.” Honors descended on Barber in its wake: the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Music, the Henry Hadley Medal of the National Association for American Composers and Conductors, and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
But troubled sailing lay ahead. In 1958, the opera was mounted at the Salzburg Festival with essentially the same cast that had performed in New York. European reviewers attacked it with a vengeance. The critic Michael Markus, in the British publication Music and Musicians, wrote, “There can be little doubt that the major talking point of this year’s Salzburg Festival was Vanessa. Not because of its merits — it has none — but because it was an artistic catastrophe of the highest order.” His compatriot Robin Hull stated in the Musical Times: “Frankly, this work was a great disappointment. It was not merely that Menotti had provided a trashy libretto, on the lines of a penny novelette, but that the composer furnished a neo-Straussian score of quite superlative dullness.” Some of the Viennese critics were so vehement in their reactions that on August 19, The New York Times ran an item about them filed by the Reuters news service: “Two Viennese music critics today described the European première of Samuel Barber’s ‘Vanessa’ as a ‘wretched work’ and branded Gian-Carlo [sic] Menotti’s libretto ‘disgusting.’ ” Other critics stood 180 degrees distant. Raymond Ericson, writing in the Opera Annual, felt that “if operas were ever designed to be sure-fire successes, Vanessa would fall in this category.” And The
Times (of London) declared: “Mr. Barber’s ideas are varied and exceedingly skilful. If the music is at times a little eclectic, it is always interesting and there are some very good tunes. Mr. Menotti’s libretto is a good one.” Taubman went so far as to cry foul in the pages of The New York Times: “Can it be that criticism abroad did not mete out to ‘Vanessa’ the even-handed justice it would bring to opera by contemporary Europeans?”
Barber and Menotti would go on to effect substantial revisions in 1964 prior to a Met revival the following year. What had originally been a four-act opera became a three-act piece, with the original Acts One and Two compressed into a single act with two scenes. That revised version is today the only one that is sanctioned by Barber’s publishers, and it is accordingly what audiences will encounter in Santa Fe. Among the abridgments made at that time was the “Callas” aria “With arms entwined”; in fact, that number seems to be unavailable in any published form today, although it can be heard on the “original cast recording,” sung by Eleanor Steber. A number of impressive arias still pepper the revised score, including Erika’s often extracted “Must the winter come so soon?” and Vanessa’s “Do not utter a word,” in addition to the trio “Under the willow tree” and, in the finale, a carefully interwoven quintet. Much of this music is hummable and memorable, which was not a given for operas of the 1950s. The tenor Robert White reminisced: “I was walking up Fifth Avenue in the business district, and I was behind him. In the crowds of shoppers passing I started to whistle the theme of the quintet from the end of Vanessa .Allofa sudden Sam stopped, turned around, and I said, ‘Did that surprise you?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m glad that somebody knows my music in this city!’ ” In truth, Barber did not lack for appreciators in his city or elsewhere. The composer William Schuman, among the most distinguished of his musical contemporaries, recounted: “One night there was a broadcast of Vanessa, and I was so moved by it that I wrote to Sam and said that those final pages are among the most beautiful in the entire literature of operatic music.” Notwithstanding the turmoil it sometimes caused, Barber was content with the piece. In the “final interview,” Kozinn asked Barber which of his creations he remained fond of. The composer allowed: “There are some works I’m close to — Knoxville, the Piano Sonata, the Piano Concerto, and Vanessa .… Opera is the most slippery thing you can get into. There are more excuses for not doing it or doing it badly. But I’ve always been a sucker for opera. It’s terribly exhilarating when you finally hear and see it onstage, with all the costumes and lights.”
Virginie Verrez (Erika); production photos Ken Howard, courtesy Santa Fe Opera
Samuel Barber (left) and Gian Carlo Menotti; top, Virginie Verrez (Erika) and Andrew Bogard (Major-Domo); center, Erin Wall (Vanessa)