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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Vanessa. An opera in three acts (Revised Version)
Vanessa: Ellen Chickering (soprano)
Erika: Andrea Matthews (soprano)
The Old Baroness: Marion Dry (contralto)
Anatol: Ray Bauwens (tenor)
The Old Doctor: Richard Conrad (tenor)
Nicholas: Philip Lima (baritone)
Ukrainian National Capella "Dumka"
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Gil Rose
Rec. Concert Studio of Ukrainian Radio, Kiev, Ukraine, 25 May Ė 8 June 2002 DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.669140-41 [2 CDs 55í08" + 65í51"]

 

Vanessa was Samuel Barberís first opera; a second, Anthony and Cleopatra followed in 1966. Written for the Metropolitan Opera, it was premièred there in 1958 to great acclaim and won for its composer a Pulitzer Prize for music that same year. The original Met cast was a stellar one including Eleanor Steber in the title role (she learned the part in a matter of weeks when Sena Jurinac had to withdraw through illness). Rosalind Elias was the original Erika; Regina Resnik created the role of the Baroness while Nicolai Gedda sang Anatol. In the pit was the charismatic Dimitri Mitropoulos. Within a short time after the première RCA made an original cast recording. Iím unsure if that is currently available and it might be thought that a budget label newcomer would struggle in comparison with a recording featuring such a cast.

However, anyone who already possesses the RCA set should seriously consider this Naxos version for two reasons. In the first place it is a highly successful recording in its own right. Secondly (and of particular importance to Barber devotees) the Mitropoulos recording naturally used the original four act text. Later, in 1964 Barber revised the score, making some excisions and reducing the four acts down to three, largely by combining the first two acts of the original version. This is, I think, the first recording of the revised score though, surprisingly perhaps, Naxos donít advertise the fact.

The libretto was by Barberís longtime companion, Gian-Carlo Menotti, himself, of course, an experienced opera composer. Menotti based his plot on one of the Seven Gothic Tales, a collection of short stories published in 1934 by Isak Dinesen (one of a number of pseudonyms adopted by the Danish writer, Karen Blixen (1886-1962)). This was Dinesen/Blixenís first book, written while she was living in Kenya, a period of her life that was the inspiration for her later work, Out of Africa (1937). Like one of the characters in the story and in the opera the author was a baroness herself, born in Rungsten in Denmark into a well-to-do family. Her father was an army officer and an author.

The action takes place in a country house in an unnamed northern European country in winter 1905. The story has the feel of a Chekhov play about it and perhaps itís no coincidence that The Cherry Orchard was one of Barberís favourites. The eponymous heroine (or anti-heroine?) has shut herself away in the house since her ill-fated affair with a married man, Anatol, many years before. For company she has her elderly mother, the Baroness, who has not spoken to Vanessa since the affair, and Vanessaís young niece, Erika. Vanessa is waiting for the arrival of Anatol but when a man arrives it is not her lover but her loverís son, also named Anatol. Vanessa and Anatol fall in love but not before Anatol has marked his arrival by seducing Erika. The girl becomes pregnant by him, a fact that is carefully concealed from the audience as well as the rest of the cast. However, when in Act II the engagement of Vanessa and Anatol is announced during a New Yearís Eve party, Erika is so overwrought that she rushes off into the winter night, slips and falls and in so doing miscarries. In Act III we see the newly-weds set off to live in Paris, leaving history to repeat itself as Erika sits down to "wait" as her mother did, accompanied only by the Baroness who, since the miscarriage, has refused to speak to her.

A truly gothic tale then and one that is eminently suitable for operatic treatment. Barber responds by giving the story the Full Treatment. As Barbara Heyman writes in her comprehensive Samuel Barber. The Composer and His Music (1992): "Vanessa does epitomize the conventional lyric style of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Romantic operas; but while its models derive from Verdi, Puccini and Strauss, the musical ideas are always on Barberís own terms." Though Barber had not written for the operatic stage before, he was already a master of vocal writing, both as a composer of many fine songs and as a not unaccomplished singer himself. He was also a fine orchestrator as the score bears witness on page after page. I believe Barbara Heymanís verdict is absolutely to the point and anyone with a taste for the operatic masters mentioned above will find much to savour here.

Though the otherwise excellent accompanying documentation doesnít make this very clear, I think I am correct in saying that the recorded performance is based on a stage production in Boston that was masterminded by Richard Conrad, who sings the role of the Doctor here. The only "newcomers" are presumably the chorus, who have very little to do, and the orchestra, which acquits itself admirably. The fact that the cast had performed the work together on stage must have been an advantage for there is a palpable sense of dramatic frisson about the proceedings.

The cast is a strong one. Ellen Chickering sings powerfully and dramatically yet with a genuine lyrical impulse also. Her Act I aria "Do not utter a word, Anatol" (CD 1, track 6) is an early illustration of her ability to sing lyrically and later with dramatic force. Good though she is throughout, she really comes into her own in Act II when the dramatic, emotional and vocal range that Barber requires her to encompass is great indeed yet she rises to the challenges splendidly. In the first scene of Act III, when Erika has been found in the snow and brought home Vanessa is tormented and grief-stricken (she is unaware of the pregnancy and remains so.) Chickeringís portrayal is taut and vivid. She has the necessary reserves of stamina and power to carry off the role successfully and hers is a most convincing assumption of the role.

Iím very slightly less convinced by Andrea Matthews as Erika. Make no mistake, she sings very well. What bothers me just a little bit is that she sounds older than I imagine Erika to be. But sample her singing of "Must the winter come so soon?" in Act 1 (CD 1, track 4) and I think youíll feel that she is a performer to be reckoned with.

On the other hand Marion Dry as the haughty old Baroness succeeds in sounding far older than she clearly is to judge from the booklet photograph. She is entirely convincing in her portrayal of a doughty matriarch. The other, more substantial character role is that of the Doctor. Richard Conrad is extremely successful here. His voice has a slightly gritty tone which is not unpleasant and which arguably is highly appropriate for this role. His tipsy solo "I should never have been a doctor" in Act II (CD 2, track 2) is very well done. Even better is his Act III aria, "For every love there is a last farewell" (CD 2, track 16) where he finds just the right degree of touching melancholy.

As the caddish Anatol Ray Bauwens sings ardently and with the right amount of Italianate ring. He is especially effective when combining with Vanessa and the ardour of their duet in Act II (CD 2, tracks 4 and 5) would not suffer in comparison to Puccini. His character may not engage our sympathies greatly but itís not meant to. Bauwens delivers the goods.

So does the orchestra. This music can scarcely have been familiar to them but they play with assurance and appropriate weight of tone. The very potent opening to Act III (CD 2, track 7) shows them at their best and the subsequent Intermezzo between that actís two scenes (CD 2, track 14) is atmospheric and intense. For all of this conductor Gil Rose must take much of the credit, of course. He is clearly the master of the score. He keeps the drama moving, not allowing any unnecessary indulgence and his conducting has a fine dramatic thrust to it. Equally, he makes the most of the many lyrical, poetic passages.

On my equipment the recording sounds excellent. The sound is full and has plenty of body round it. The singers are easily heard but one is not conscious of any artificiality in the balance. Plenty of orchestral detail comes through.

The documentation would put many other labels to shame. There are biographies (and photos) of all the principals. Thereís a very useful, comprehensive essay about the score from Richard Conrad. Best of all, thereís a very good synopsis of the plot which incorporates cueing points for all the separate tracks (37 in all across the two CDs). All of this is in English and German but the libretto itself is in English only. There are a few very minor discrepancies between the printed libretto and what is actually sung but these are of no matter.

I rejoice that such a significant opera by a composer whose music I greatly admire has been done proud by this release. As I said at the start, even if you already have the Mitropoulos recording there are excellent artistic and textual reasons for acquiring this set as well. Itís a very fine achievement and Naxos deserve our thanks for bringing this distinguished recording into the catalogue.

Urgently recommended.

John Quinn

 

 



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