We, European snobs, turn up our noses at American music. We find it all kitsch without really understanding it at all. What do we know about Samuel Barber and his partner Menotti, who also was a gifted composer, director and librettist? Little, I’m afraid. But how ‘American’ were they? And what does that actually mean?
Vanessa, Samuel Barber’s first opera, hit like a bomb. The premiere at the Met on January 15, 1958 was a huge success. Newsweek reported that Barber’s performance was hailed with “an utter roar, usually reserved for prima donnas”. Dimitri Mitropoulos, who conducted the performance, remarked with great enthusiasm, “At last, an American Grand Opera!”
But not so long after, the opera was labelled ‘un-American’. And that is a good point, for the libretto by Menotti, slightly based on the stories of Isak Denisen (Karen Blixen), is universal and of all times; and most reminiscent of ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens.
After the premiere in 1958 (and the recording on RCA), Vanessa was locked up and almost forgotten. The reason? Ask the programmers, the managers, the musicologists, because I do not know. That the opera is still being staged, albeit sparsely, is thanks to Kiri te Kanawa who sang the role of Vanessa in Monte Carlo in 2001 and repeated it twice: in Washington and Los Angeles. That was a wake up call.
I cannot help but consider the production recorded for DVD at Glyndebourne in 2018 to be an absolute masterpiece. Keith Warner’s staging is very cinematic and it does the opera justice. You can really feel the cold and the frost and there are even a few snowflakes. Think of winter in Scandinavia. Of Strindberg. And of those emotions that remain hidden under a thick layer of ice…
Barber composed the role of Anatol for Nikolai Gedda. Edgaras Montvidas does not really come close to it. His beautiful, light tenor lacks sensuality, so it is not really plausible that he would break the hearts of no less than two women. Although… Vanessa has been waiting so long that she is ready for anything and Erika has never even met a man before. One thing is for sure: this Anatol is going to cause a lot of problems. Another thing is also for sure: this Anatol is going to make you hate him.
Erika is officially a cousin of Vanessa, but the good listener knows better and this production blatantly shows it. Erika is Vanessa’s daughter. That makes all relationships even more complicated – she is now also Anatol’s sister! – but at the same time also clearer. The French light mezzo Virginie Verrez is irresistible in the role. Her voice sounds youthful, curious and longing. Her ‘Must the winter come so soon’ already brings tears to my eyes. Towards the end, her voice becomes almost Vanessa-like in timbre. She closes the curtains, covers the mirrors and locks the doors. It is now her time to wait. Touching.
Vanessa is portrayed phenomenally by Emma Bell. Overemotional on the one hand, and yet pretty cool and calculating on the other. Something is not right there, you feel it, no, you know it. Bell does an excellent job of expressing that borderline-like quality. Both in her singing and in her acting.
Rosalind Plowright is peerless as the old baroness. She too, as are her daughter and granddaughter, is emotionally conflicted. Compassionate but up to a point: her principles win out over her feelings.
Donnie Ray Albert is irresistible as the old doctor. His ‘Under the linden tree’ is a real showstopper.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jakub Hrusa, plays the stars from the sky. My God, what a conductor!
Barber: “Art is international, and if an opera is inspired, it needs no boundaries.” And that is so true here.