James M. Keller takes a closer look at Sa­muel Bar­ber’s Vanessa

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Of the five works in Santa Fe Opera’s reper­toire this sum­mer, Sa­muel Bar­ber’s Vanessa seems to have in­spired the most con­ver­sa­tion in its af­ter­math. Now that the com­pany’s sea­son has ended, I want to share a fi­nal thought about it. This hunch has been on my mind for some while, but it seemed best to tuck it away un­til the run ended. I didn’t want peo­ple to be in­flu­enced by what may be a dis­turb­ing point of view be­fore they en­coun­tered this in­trigu­ing stage work.

The li­bretto, an orig­i­nal piece of writ­ing by the composer’s long­time com­pan­ion and some­time lover Gian Carlo Menotti, cen­ters on three women who live in a re­mote coun­try man­sion in an uniden­ti­fied north­ern na­tion. The drama­tis per­sonae iden­ti­fies them thus: Vanessa, a lady of great beauty; Erika, her niece, a young girl of twenty; and the Old Baroness, Vanessa’s mother and Erika’s grand­mother. No ref­er­ence is made to other mem­bers of the fam­ily. We imag­ine the Old Baroness to be a widow, but no­body ever men­tions her hus­band, liv­ing or dead. We as­sume that Erika’s par­ents — one of them would have been Vanessa’s brother or sis­ter — are sim­i­larly de­ceased, al­though they, too, are ab­sent from the con­ver­sa­tion. Vanessa, we gather, was de­serted by Ana­tol many years ago; when we meet her, she is a mid­dle-aged, self-cen­tered woman who has iso­lated her­self in the con­fines of the house, await­ing his un­likely re­turn. Against all odds, Ana­tol does show up; but it turns out that he is the son of the Ana­tol from Vanessa’s past. Ana­tol Sr., he says, is dead. Alone with Erika, he ex­plains:

All through my youth I heard that name, Vanessa. Like a burn­ing flame it used to scorch my mother’s lips and light my fa­ther’s eyes with long­ing. Now that I am alone I have been driven here to meet at last the woman who haunted so my house: Vanessa.

“But who are you?” he con­tin­ues. Erika re­sponds, “Some­times I am her niece/but mostly her shadow.”

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Old Baroness and Vanessa is bro­ken be­yond re­pair. The Baroness does not deign to speak to Vanessa, a si­lence she ap­pears to have been im­pos­ing for a very long time. Some­thing is deeply out of kil­ter in this fam­ily, some­thing so egre­gious that it can­not be spo­ken of. Can it be that this is an opera about in­cest?

Prior to this sea­son, I hadn’t thought about Vanessa in ages, and if you had asked me to re­count the story, I would have said that Erika was Vanessa’s daugh­ter rather than her niece; such are the va­garies of mem­ory. Even af­ter I re­vis­ited the piece while pre­par­ing for the sea­son, I kept on think­ing of her in that way, catch­ing my­self say­ing things like “… and then her daugh­ter — I mean her niece — runs out in the snow.” Some­times slips of that sort may be telling us some­thing.

It would raise the stakes con­sid­er­ably if Erika were Vanessa’s daugh­ter rather than her niece. It is cred­i­ble that Erika would be un­aware of the sit­u­a­tion; the fam­ily could have adopted its of­fi­cial line — that she is Vanessa’s niece — from the mo­ment she was born 20 years ago. Even so, Erika’s state­ment, “Some­times I am her niece/but mostly her shadow,” sug­gests that she views the re­la­tion­ship with some sus­pi­cion. “Aha, the lit­tle sphinx be­gins to clamor for her an­swers,” Ana­tol says to her in an­other ex­change. “I have the right to claim them!” Erika re­sponds. And why did Vanessa’s very name scorch the lips of young Ana­tol’s mother? Was that mother play­ing a fic­ti­tious role, rais­ing a child her hus­band had sired with an­other woman, pos­si­bly in deeply il­licit cir­cum­stances?

Both Vanessa and Erika fall in love with Ana­tol Jr. He im­preg­nates Erika the night he ar­rives, but for most of the opera this re­mains a se­cret be­tween Erika and the au­di­ence. Weeks pass. Ana­tol’s in­volve­ment with Vanessa turns into their en­gage­ment, and Erika places her­self in phys­i­cal peril in or­der to ef­fect a mis­car­riage. The Old Baroness ob­serves Erika’s anx­i­ety with some de­gree of sym­pa­thy, but when Erika con­firms to her what has hap­pened — that she has aborted what would have been her baby with Ana­tol — the grand­mother adds Erika to her black­list. It is the most shock­ing mo­ment of the opera. “The Baroness gets up from her chair and slowly walks to­wards the door,” reads Menotti’s orig­i­nal li­bretto, the ver­sion used when the opera was pre­miered in 1958. When he re­vised it, in 1964, he in­ten­si­fied the mo­ment: “With one vi­o­lent rap of her cane on the floor, the Baroness sud­denly gets up from her chair and slowly walks to­ward the door.” This sum­mer’s pro­duc­tion took it a step fur­ther; the Baroness slapped Erika and then left, re­treat­ing into the word­less­ness she would main­tain from that point on.

The Old Baroness would have grasped the sit­u­a­tion. She has al­ready cut off her re­la­tion­ship with her daugh­ter. Vanessa, it seems, is now en­gaged to her own son. Granddaughter Erika has un­wit­tingly spi­raled into an in­ces­tu­ous re­la­tion­ship with her own half-brother (or her full brother, if we imag­ine that her par­ents were Vanessa and Ana­tol Sr.), and that, too, earns the Baroness’ si­lent re­buke. It is all too much for the Baroness to tol­er­ate. The taboo is in­vi­o­lable. Once freed in this di­rec­tion, the imag­i­na­tion might roam to Vanessa’s own ori­gins. Who was her never-men­tioned fa­ther? Could it be that the un­com­fort­ably snug fa­mil­ial re­la­tions ex­tend back to the Old Baroness her­self, that we are wit­ness­ing a cy­cle that re­peats it­self through gen­er­a­tions? From Ana­tol Jr.’s ac­count we know that Ana­tol Sr. did not re­ally spurn Vanessa; her very name lit his fa­ther’s eyes with long­ing. So why didn’t he marry her? Was his “min­gling” with her in­her­ently forbidden be­cause they were blood re­la­tions? Is that why the Baroness cut her off?

We can cer­tainly take Menotti’s words at face value and ac­cept Vanessa and Erika as an aunt and a niece who both get in­volved with the same young man — no

more than that. But Menotti in­vites us to ques­tion this, and he steers us with a con­spic­u­ous clue. As the three women sit in their draw­ing room be­fore Ana­tol ap­pears, they while away the time by read­ing aloud. And what do they read? Oedi­pus the King, Sopho­cles’ clas­sic tale of a fam­ily brought to tragedy by fall­ing prey to in­cest. The women seem to pos­sess the 1928 trans­la­tion by Wil­liam But­ler Yeats, al­though Menotti changes one word, al­ter­ing “mis­er­able” to “sor­row­ful,” which ac­cords more closely to the spirit of the house­hold in the opera. Erika be­gins at the pas­sage where their pre­vi­ous read­ing ses­sion ap­par­ently left off:

ERIKA Here it is — (reads, spo­ken) Oedi­pus: “Woe, woe is me, Sor­row­ful that I am! Where am I, where am I go­ing? Where am I cast away?” (Vanessa gets up and snatches the book away from Erika.)

VANESSA You do not know how to read. You have never known what love is! (read­ing as she paces up and down the room) “Woe, woe is me, Sor­row­ful, sor­row­ful that I am! Where am I? Where am I go­ing? Where am I cast away?” (The book falls from her hand.)

Iat­tended two per­for­mances of Vanessa this sum­mer, and at both the au­di­ence re­sponded to this scene with laugh­ter. That was un­der­stand­able; it seemed such a cu­ri­ous se­lec­tion for read­ing. But Menotti’s choice can hardly have been ar­bi­trary. In­deed, it is al­luded to again in Ana­tol’s com­ment to Erika about how “the lit­tle sphinx be­gins to clamor for her an­swers.” A turn­ing point in the Oedi­pus tale ar­rives when he solves a rid­dle posed to him by the Sphinx, the rid­dle about the three ages of man, who goes on four feet in the morn­ing, two at noon, and three in the evening. In Bar­ber’s opera, the women rep­re­sent all three stages: Erika is in the process of cre­at­ing an in­fant, Vanessa is of firmly two-footed mid­dle age, and the Old Baroness tot­ters about with a cane. Nor can Menotti’s way of pre­sent­ing the “Woe is me” pas­sage be in­ci­den­tal, with the two women who are about to plunge into their re­spec­tive sex­ual li­aisons with Ana­tol com­pet­ing over which one has the author­ity to read this text. It is par­tic­u­larly un­set­tling that Vanessa should dis­miss Erika’s en­ti­tle­ment to read the pas­sage on the grounds that she has “never known what love is,” since the love be­hind this lit­er­ary pas­sage would be in­ces­tu­ous love. Oedi­pus’ par­tic­u­lar tragedy in­volves his hav­ing un­sus­pect­ingly mur­dered his fa­ther and mar­ried his mother, and on re­al­iz­ing what he has done, he blinds him­self. “Brief is the day for blind­ness,/and brief the day for mad­ness,” sings Ana­tol to Vanessa, near the opera’s con­clu­sion. “Hide in my love; only the mad, only the blind can fly!” He re­sem­bles a modern Oedi­pus, cat­a­pulted into his pro­hib­ited love af­fairs at least partly by the tides of fate: “I have been driven here/to meet at last the woman/who haunted so my house: Vanessa.”

In our pre­view piece about this opera (Pasatiempo, July 29), we wrote of how Vanessa scored a great suc­cess at its 1958 premiere, at the Metropoli­tan Opera, but came in for ou­traged crit­i­cism when un­veiled in Salzburg later that year. The Reuters news ser­vice re­ported of its re­cep­tion there, “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.’ ” One won­ders if those crit­ics, whose Ger­manic school­ing would have ex­posed them in­deli­bly to the Greek clas­sics, were per­haps ap­palled by the in­ces­tu­ous im­pli­ca­tions un­rolling be­fore their eyes, here in a modern set­ting rather than buffered by mythic an­tiq­uity. Of course, some­times a cigar is only a cigar; but in this case, an Oedi­pal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Bar­ber’s opera may bring this dis­turb­ing work into clearer fo­cus.

He­lene Sch­nei­der­man as the Old Baroness

Vir­ginie Ver­rez as Erika

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