Vanessa is an American opera in three (originally four) acts by Samuel Barber with an original English libretto by Gian-Carlo Menotti. It was composed in 1956–1957 and was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 15, 1958 under the baton of Dimitri Mitropoulos in a production designed by Cecil Beaton and directed by Menotti. Barber revised the opera in 1964, reducing the four acts to the three-act version most commonly performed today.
For the Met premiere, Sena Jurinac was contracted to sing the title role. However, she cancelled six weeks before the opening night and Eleanor Steber replaced her, making it her own for a long time. In the role of Erika, Vanessa's niece, was Rosalind Elias, then a young mezzo-soprano. Nicolai Gedda sang the lover Anatol, mezzo Regina Resnik sang the Baroness, Vanessa's mother, while bass, Giorgio Tozzi, sang the old doctor.
The premiere "was an unqualified success with the audience and with many of the critics as well although they were somewhat qualified in their judgment. Of the final quintet, however, New York Times critic Howard Taubman said it is '…a full-blown set-piece that packs an emotional charge and that would be a credit to any composer anywhere today.' ". Other reports substantiate this and it won Barber the Pulitzer Prize. In Europe, however, it met with a chillier reception.
The Met's Cecil Beaton sets were destroyed by fire in 1973 and, after a long period of few revivals, one being in 1988 by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Washington National Opera (in a co-production with the Dallas Opera) revived the work in 1995 using the 1964 revised and more compact version. Elizabeth Holleque sang the title role.
Kiri Te Kanawa sang the title role in three revivals, the first of which was presented by the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in 2001 and the last two in 2004 (at the time, described as her farewell to the opera stage), at the Washington National Opera and at the Los Angeles Opera.
In all three productions, Rosalind Elias, who sang Erika in the 1958 premiere, took on the role of the Baroness. For its 50th anniversary revival by the New York City Opera in November 2007, she was once more featured in that role, with Lauren Flanagan taking the title role.
Highlights from the score include the soprano scena and aria He has come, he has come!...Do Not Utter a Word (recorded by Leontyne Price and Renée Fleming), the mezzo aria Must the Winter Come So Soon? (recorded by Denyce Graves), and the last act quintet, To Leave, to Break.
Source of the story
In many print media it says that the libretto of Gian-Carlo Menotti is based on a work of Isak Dinesen (pen name for Karen Blixen), described variously as a "short story" or "novella". However, the story is not found in any of Isak Dinesen's works. There is evidence of Samuel Barber's having read Blixen's Seven Gothic Tales, and the mistaking of the proper source may have come from a proclamation by Menotti and Barber, that the opera reproduced the "atmosphere" of Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales. "Menotti recalled, 'I was writing a libretto for Sam, and Sam is essentially a romantic personality...'" Menotti was "inspired by Isak Dinesen's stories, in particular her Seven Gothic Tales. He said, "I felt that the atmosphere... would make a wonderful opera."
Karen Blixen was present at the premiere of the opera on January 7, 1959, but part way through the performance she pleaded illness and left the theater. Her secretary wrote that Barber was "upset" by Blixen's premature departure from the opera. Karen Blixen made no public comment.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, January 15, 1958
(Conductor: Dimitri Mitropoulos)
|Erika, her niece||mezzo-soprano||Rosalind Elias|
|The Old Baroness, Vanessa's mother||contralto||Regina Resnik|
|Anatol, the son of Vanessa's original lover, also named Anatol||tenor||Nicolai Gedda|
|The Old Doctor||baritone||Giorgio Tozzi|
|Nicholas, the major-domo||bass||George Cehanovsky|
|The Footman||bass||Robert Nagy|
- Time: About 1905.
- Place: Vanessa's country house in a northern country.
Vanessa, Erika, and the Baroness await the arrival of Anatol, a man who had been Vanessa's lover twenty years before. After his departure, she had covered up all the mirrors of the house until his expected return, unwilling to face looking at her aging self. Thinking that the man who arrives and who is called Anatol is her former lover, Vanessa refuses to reveal her face to him until he says he still loves her. He says that he does, but she does not recognize him. However, it is the young Anatol who has come, his father now being dead. Upset, Vanessa leaves the room, and Erika and Anatol now enjoy the meal and wine meant for Vanessa and his father.
Erika tells the Baroness that the young Anatol seduced her on his first night in the house and the Baroness scolds her. Erika has fallen in love with Anatol, but resists his marriage proposal because she doubts his sincerity. Not knowing that Erika loves the young man and in her delusionary state of mind, Vanessa tells her niece that she still loves him, despite Erika's warning that he is not her former lover. The Baroness tells Erika to fight for Anatol. She is unsure if he is worthy of her efforts. Again, he proposes, and, again, she declines.
The doctor is drunk at a New Year's Eve ball. The Baroness and Erika refuse to come to the party to hear his announcement of Anatol and Vanessa's engagement. The doctor goes to fetch them, while Vanessa tells Anatol her fears. Finally Erika, who, unbeknownst to everyone else, is pregnant, comes downstairs, but faints, clutching her stomach, while the doctor is making the announcement. She recovers and flees into the freezing weather in order to abort her child. (In the original she says, "His child! It must not be born!" which makes clear her motivation for going out into the cold, but this line is dropped in the revision.)
Vanessa is happy when Erika is found alive, and she asks Anatol why Erika is acting so strangely and whether he thinks that she loves him. He explains that she does not. Continuing in her delusionary state, Vanessa begs Anatol to take her away. Meanwhile, Erika confesses to the Baroness that she had been pregnant, but is no longer. As Vanessa and Anatol finalize their preparations to move to Paris, Vanessa asks Erika why she ran away. The niece replies that she was just being foolish, and Vanessa tells her that she may never come back to the house where she has been living. After the couple leaves, Erika covers the mirrors and closes up the house, just as Vanessa had done before her. She says that it is now her turn to wait.
Opera house and orchestra
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
|Audio CD: RCA Victor
(cast of world premiere, per booklet with original LP recording)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
|Audio CD: Orfeo
Cat: C653062I (European premiere)
Richard Conrad as the Doctor
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and Capella Dumka of Ukraine
|Audio CD: Naxos
BBC Symphony Orchestra
|Super Audio CD: Chandos
- "Samuel Barber and Vanessa " from operapaedia.com, a website of the San Diego Opera
- "A grand romance" Tim Ashley, The Guardian (London), November 14, 2003
- Alex Ross, "OPERA REVIEW; Barber's Vanessa, Long Neglected, Is Revived ", The New York Times, January 16th 1995
- In the Rough Guide to Operas 4. revised edition of 2007: "Based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, Vanessa brought the composer wide-ranging American recognition as well as a Pulitzer Prize." (p.631).
- Question 101: Source of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa?, in karenblixen.com Q&A section
- Heyman, p. ?
- Svendsen, p. ?
- Heyman, Barbara. Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music New York: Oxford University Press, 1992 ISBN 0-19-506650-2
- Svendsen, Clara Notater Om Karen Blixen, Gyldendal, 1974. ISBN 978-87-00-28862-1 ISBN 8700288624
- Video of Erika's aria, "Must the Winter Come So Soon?", sung by Mary Gayle Greene
- Kiri Te Kanawa as Vanessa in Act 3 from the Opéra de Monte-Carlo production, 2001
- Discussion of the source of Samuel Barber's Vanessa from karenblixen.com
- "A grand romance", Tim Ashley, The Guardian (London), November 14, 2003 review of Vanessa