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.