Friday, 14 September 2018

In search of the Great American Opera, the strange case of Samuel Barber's Vanessa

Rosalind Elias and Eleanor Steber in the original 1958 Met Opera production of Vanessa. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archive
Rosalind Elias and Eleanor Steber in the original 1958 Met Opera production of Vanessa.
Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archive
Samuel Barber's Vanessa is a strange piece, yet remarkably strong. I saw it twice this summer at Glyndebourne [see my review of the premiere] and the second time it did not pall, partly thanks to the strong performances and partly through the way director Keith Warner's production mined the works unspoken depths.

Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez
(c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
The work was premiered at the Met in New York in 1958. It was Barber's first large-scale opera. Though three years younger than Barber, Benjamin Britten had already written Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Gloriana, Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring and Turn of the Screw, whilst Francis Poulenc's Carmelites premiered in 1956. And there is an inevitable tendency to compare Barber's work to that of these composers, rather than taking it on its own terms. Much of the critical reaction to Glyndebourne's production of Vanessa has tended to emphasise that the piece simply wasn't what was expected from a composer writing in the 1950s.

Whereas Benjamin Britten and Francis Poulenc's works use libretti which have strong links with the Western European literary elite, Giancarlo Menotti's libretto for Vanessa can come over as rather novelettish and its strongest links seem to be with Hollywood films of the period (Hitchcock's Rebecca, from 1940, seems a particular link). And like these films, the distinctive style has a tendency to dominate, whilst the complexity which lies underneath is easily obscured.

At Santa Fe Opera in 2016 [see my review] the opera was played straight, as Hollywood noir without many of the undercurrents. It has taken Keith Warner's production at Glyndebourne to give the piece depth, a process which seems to have started with Rodula Gaitanou's 2017 production at Wexford which brought out the Tchekovian influences [see the review on Bachtrack]. Warner's production hinted at the issues of incest, miscegenation and abortion, things which helped explain the torrid atmosphere.

Not that the piece is perfect, far from it. When the first Erika, Rosalind Elias, pointed out to Samuel Barber, rather dauntingly, that her character was the only major one without an aria, he came up with 'Must the Winter come so soon'. This is a stunning number which has been a recital staple ever since,  but it is very much in Barber's Knoxville, Summer 1915 style and works well as a stand-alone piece yet in context it seems apropos of nothing and even holds up the action. Yet at the ends of Act One and Act Two Erika has strong scenes which cry out for expansion. But it is in these scenes that Barber moved furthest away from his chosen medium, American lyricism, and clearly he shied away from going too far.


Rosalind Elias (Erika), and Nicolai Gedda (Anatol) in Act II. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
Rosalind Elias and Nicolai Gedda in 1958
Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
Perhaps to understand the work, we should see it in the context of the quest for the Great American Opera. Vanessa was commissioned by the Met, and Barber almost couldn't bee seen emulating Europeans like Benjamin Britten or even Alban Berg (one of Britten's heroes). The opera might have developed differently if it had premiered somewhere smaller and less prominent. To put the opera into context we need hindsight, to look at the vein of American opera which developed in the late 20th century, a vein of contemporary lyricism which is embodied by operas like John Adams' Nixon in China. But it is significant that this vein struggles somewhat to find a place in European houses. Jake Heggie's 2000 opera Dead Man Walking only received its UK premiere last year [see my review] and Mark Adamo's 1998 opera Little Women has still not appeared in the UK (though the trio was done at the SWAP'ra Gala this year).

Barber's opera is different in style to these, but needs to be seen in this context, an attempt to mine a different vein, one which would only be truly successful in the late 20th century. And we still need to hear Barber's Anthony and Cleopatra in the UK, though Sally Matthews' performance of two arias at the BBC Proms this year whetted our appetite [see my review]. So how about it BBC, a concert performance of Anthony and Cleopatra with Sally Matthews as Cleo?

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