BARBER: Vanessa
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BARBER: Vanessa

CD Button Steber, Elias, Resnik; Gedda, Tozzi. Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, Mitropoulos. No libretto. Sony 88897448172 (2)

Recordings Vanessa Cover 316
Critics Choice Button 1015 

WHAT AMERICAN OPERA has ever had as superb a cast album as Samuel Barber’s Vanessa? In the months following the work’s Met world premiere, in January 1958, the great Dimitri Mitropoulos recorded the piece’s fantastic initial quintet in New York—Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, Regina Resnik, Nicolai Gedda and Giorgio Tozzi. The two tiny comprimario roles went to longtime Met regulars then at opposite ends of their careers—George Cehanovsky (Nicholas, the Major-Domo) and Robert Nagy (Footman). For the opera’s first two Met seasons, this remained the cast, save for a few appearances by Brenda Lewis (Vanessa) and Clifford Harvuot (Doctor). Barber and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti revised the opera in 1964, making the four acts into three, helpfully tightening the Act II climax and eliminating the title heroine’s elaborate “Skating Song,” all to the piece’s benefit. The revision yielded another house run in 1965, with cast changes—yet no one but Elias has ever sung Erika at the Met. Both of the other commercial recordings of Vanessa, a makeshift effort on Naxos and—much preferable—Leonard Slatkin’s strong set on Chandos (starring Christine Brewer, Susan Graham and William Burden), document the revision, so Mitropoulos’s dynamic, word-sensitive taping remains the Vanessa urtext. 

Sony has now reissued this set, last available on RCA Gold Seal. Vanessa—due to Menotti’s sometimes overheated dialogue, potage crême aux perles and jardin d’hiver—is not for everyone; some critics seem to flog it just to assert their macho bona fides. But the same “women’s picture” sensibility that occasionally veers toward the ludicrous also makes for memorable characters and pithy lines (e.g., Erika’s “Sometimes I am her niece, but mostly her shadow”), which this cast delivers excellently. The orchestral music, though occasionally weakened by needless allusions to greater scores (such as Boris Godunov and Die Frau ohne Schatten), is of high quality—increasingly so as the opera proceeds. In addition, Barber certainly knew how to write effectively for voices. It remains a miracle that Steber makes music not written for her—Maria Callas, then Sena Jurinac, were Barber’s early choices—sound as if designed for her remarkable vocal and musical abilities, not least the stunning tapered dynamics. Elias and Gedda, his English diction phenomenal, give fresh-voiced, deeply inflected characterizations. And Resnik and Tozzi, showing a ringing freedom at the top that most subsequent Doctors have lacked, imbue their parts with the verbal precision that made both singers effective Broadway performers. Mitropoulos works wonders too. The bare-bones booklet provides only a short synopsis (in English, French and German) and track numbers.  —David Shengold 

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