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