Samuel Barber and Vanessa

The composer Samuel Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1910 and he seemed destined to live a life in music from childhood. His aunt was the great Metropolitan Opera contralto, Louise Homer, herself married to composer Sidney Homer. During her career, Homer essayed all of the great contralto roles of the Italian and French repertoire, even branching out into Wagnerian roles like Ortrud in Lohengrin. It must have been especially inspiring for a young, budding composer to have such an illustrious opera star in the family. The possessor of a fine baritone voice, Barber was somewhat torn between his compositional career and his evident talent as a vocal recitalist but he solved this by becoming one of the most significant American composers of art song.

While a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Barber met another young composer, Gian Carlo Menotti. Born in the town of Cadegliano in 1911, he came to this country in 1928 to study composition at Curtis and the two began a close relationship that was to continue through the rest of their lives. But whereas Menotti had success in opera relatively early on in his career with a Metropolitan Opera debut of his first opera, Amelia Goes to the Ball in 1938, Barber was finding his compositional voice by writing songs, chamber music and symphonic works. In 1929 he won the Bearns Prize from Columbia University for his Violin Sonata and in 1935 he won the prestigious Rome Prize which came with a two year residency at the American Academy in the Italian capitol. His reputation as a composer was canonized by the 1938 broadcast of his first Essay for Orchestra and the now ubiquitous Adagio for Strings by the NBC Orchestra under the baton of Arturo Toscanini.

By the time of the Toscanini broadcast, Barber was already seen as being at the head of a movement back towards Romanticism in music. His musical style was the antithesis of the 12-tone school being espoused by young American composers and academics coming home from studies in Europe. Barber's musical language was totally connected to his desire to connect emotionally with his audience. Although his music could be dissonant, it was always lyrical and expressive, unbound by theories of atonality. Probably because of this accessible style he received many important commissions: the Prayers of Kierkegaard from the Koussevitsky Foundation, the Hermit Songs from the Coolidge Foundation of the Library of Congress, and Knoxville: Summer of 1915 commissioned by the soprano Eleanor Steber to a text by James Agee. The original Agee piece first appeared in an edition of The New Yorker as a reminiscence of an innocent America long since destroyed by the experience of two world wars. Barber's score perfectly captures the nostalgia and the air of memory that pervades the text.

Rudolf Bing, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, offered Barber a commission for an opera based on the composer's success in these other fields of composition, convinced that his inherent lyricism would lend itself well to the form. In searching for a librettist, Barber turned to a number of contemporary authors: Thornton Wilder, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender and, again, James Agee. He even briefly flirted with the possibility of an operatic setting of A Streetcar Named Desire. But eventually, in a rather bold move, Barber turned to his close friend Menotti to write the libretto for the opera. Menotti had written the librettos of most of his own operas, and even though he had a reputation of leaving things until the last minute, Barber felt that the best librettist for this work would be someone who understood the lyric muse from both sides of the fence, as both a poet and a composer. More as inspiration for the libretto than as a true source, the two composers turned to Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales for the opera's setting in an unnamed 'Northern' country and the haunting atmosphere that pervades the work.

Although Menotti and Barber were extremely close, there was certain to be a good deal of tension during the production of the text and score. In fact, after Menotti had written the first scene up to the appearance of the mysterious Anatol and Barber had set it to music, the composer had to wait a year and a half for Menotti to be free of his own operatic projects in order to complete the text. Poor Anatol, Barber wrote, remained standing in the cold!

Both Rudolf Bing and Samuel Barber wanted Vanessa to be a vehicle for the great Greek-American soprano Maria Callas. They felt that given Callas' temperament, she would be a perfect fit for this tragic woman who has been tortured by the memory of past love and who, refusing to accept reality, is desperate to relive that past no matter the consequences. But Callas, shrewdly realizing that the character of Erika, Vanessa's niece, would be a star turn for whoever took the role, declined. Sena Jurinac was contracted to actually sing the role but cancelled at a moment's notice and the Met management turned to Eleanor Steber six weeks prior to opening night. Although the role was extremely demanding, Steber learned it and eventually made it her own.

The young mezzo Rosalind Elias was cast in the role of Erika and proved Callas to be correct: she nearly walked off with the opera, so convincing was she in her portrayal of Vanessa's niece. Filling out the cast were tenor Nicolai Gedda as the lover Anatol, mezzo Regina Reznik as Vanessa's mother the Baroness and bass Giorgio Tozzi as the old doctor. This star-studded cast was under the baton of Dimitri Mitropoulos. The first performance on January 15, 1958 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." Concerning Menotti's libretto, Harriet Johnson of the NY Post wrote, "This is possibly his finest libretto, a more mature piece of writing than those he has provided for his own operas. May the two foster artistically, together and singly, in the future. Their gifts, in our time, are rare indeed."

Given the success of Vanessa it wasn't long before the Met came back to Barber with a commission for a grand opera to open their new house at Lincoln Center in 1966. Antony and Cleopatra opened on September 16 that year to more fanfare and hoopla than any other opera had in the history of the Met. Despite an all-star cast that included Leontyne Price, Jess Thomas and Justino Diaz, the opera was one of the great disappointments in the company's history of commissions for new opera. Admittedly the production crew tried to do too much in order to show off what the new stage could do, and the Zeffirelli production and libretto were deemed too grandiose for Barber's more sensitive musical personality. But the composer revised the score in 1974, a revision which was eventually to be seen at the Juilliard School, the Spoleto Festival and Chicago Lyric Opera, and it remains to be seen if this more successful version will one day hold its own.

The disappointing reception of Antony dealt a blow to Barber's compositional process from which he was not to recover. Although he wrote a handful of works after 1966, he was never to regain the stature he enjoyed during the height of his success with Vanessa. When he died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 70, his librettist and longtime companion, Menotti, was at his bedside.

The Music of Vanessa

It's always fascinating to try to decipher the ways that operatic composers use music to delineate the characters in their operas and it's certainly no less interesting to try to break the code in Vanessa. The main character is a complex person, at one point passionate or hysterical, at another haunted by memory and nostalgic for a past that will never repeat itself. Her more active, manic side is expressed in the orchestral introduction which, although dissonant, has a couple of lyrical tunes that will be used later in the opera.

After the curtain goes up Barber gives us an indication of the atmosphere in this house, where Vanessa has virtually locked herself up, where her mother the Baroness no longer speaks to her, and where the young and beautiful Erika is trapped with two older women, each of whom expresses their bitterness in different, but poisonous ways. This moment is even marked in the score, "Dark and unquiet", so that there is no question about what is being described. Musicologist John W. Freeman tells us of this moment that it sounds like "…a stalking figure, like someone pacing a room."

But Vanessa has her lyrical moments as well. In Act I, scene 2, after the ice-skating excursion with Anatol she describes to Erika the conversation she had with him and recounts, to Erika's horror, the growing love between them. In the orchestra we hear one of those long lyrical lines for which Barber is so well known. Other characters have expressive music as well. Anatol, although he's something of a manipulative cad, has some lovely music as he 'lets Erika down easily' in the second scene, telling her that he can only love her as a friend. Another interesting theme of Anatol's occurs when he warns Vanessa in Act II that "love has a bitter core". This tune recurs in the penultimate scene, after Erika's suicide attempt, when Vanessa turns to him and asks if he knows anything about it, if in some way this desperate act is related to him.

One of the most touching moments of the score is given over to Erika who, in the very first scene, looks out over the snow covered garden and sings her aria, "Must the winter come so soon?" This is one of those truly Romantic moments for which Barber is justly known. But Erika has other, shorter motives attached to her. One of them opens the second scene, after she's been seduced by Anatol and as she relates the event to her grandmother, the Baroness. This short thematic idea perfectly expresses her frustration over her erstwhile lover. The idea is developed throughout this scene and the act ends with it as she determines that she will not lay claim to him but will let Vanessa try to re-find her own long lost happiness through him.

One of the most powerful moments in the score is when Erika informs her grandmother that as a result of her rushing out of the party into the snow, she has lost the baby, Anatol's child that she was carrying. At the moment she informs the Baroness of this, the old woman rises out of her chair with a thump of her cane, turns her back on Erika and walks out of the room, to remain mute now to a second generation of women in this family, disgusted as she is by the denial of reality and the lack of courage which she finds in everyone around her. The music which accompanies this moment in the orchestra is a deformed ("aborted") version of Anatol's theme.

The music of Vanessa is certainly powerful, and expresses all of the subtle and not so subtle emotions that come to play in this sad but memorable household. Like all the truly great opera composers, Barber expresses it all perfectly through brilliant orchestration and lyrical lines for his sad, flawed characters.

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