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.

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - James M. Keller

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)

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