Samuel Barber's 'Vanessa' -
'Andrea Matthews is a very powerful Erika ...'
Hardly the composer's fault, of course, that the title of his first proper opera now suggests
the dubious allure of a daytime television chat show. Hardly the fault of Naxos that the work's
first performers went into the RCA studios to make of it one of the most visceral and abiding
recordings of twentieth century operas. Fortunately, this new version -- in clean digital sound
-- is a committed engagement with Barber's score: there's nothing workaday about singing,
playing or conducting and those new to the work would have no cause for disappointment.
Vanessa had something of a rollercoaster ride into the world. Barber had been sounding out
Dylan Thomas and Thornton Wilder among others as potential librettists before accepting the offer
of his companion and fellow composer, Gian Carlo Menotti to be his collaborator. Maria Callas
was first in line to sing the title role at the Metropolitan Opera première and one can
almost believe the quip related by Matthew Boyden that she turned the role down on the
grounds that she could never be expected to fall in love with a man who had already slept with
the mezzo-soprano! Sena Jurinac agreed to sing the part but withdrew only weeks before the
opening night. Once Eleanor Steber was chosen and triumphed in the 1958 production, the
consensus was that she ought to have been the first choice anyway. The opera played to packed
houses and rave reviews in New York and won a Pulitzer Prize for its composer.
The cast and conductor (Dimitri Mitropoulos) then travelled to the Salzburg Festival to give the
first American opera performed there. The critics had decided in advance that they weren't
going to like it. The atmosphere was poisonous. Karajan -- who had extended the invitation --
went, as so often, the way the wind was blowing. 'He behaved like an absolute pig!' Menotti
claimed. Mitropoulos sank into a familiar bitter depression. All very -- well, -- operatic!
Copyright © 5 November 2003
David Wilkins, Eastbourne UK