Barber’s Vanessa – BBCSO/Slatkin (15 November)


Vanessa – Christine Brewer
Erika – Susan Graham
The Old Baroness – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Anatol – William Burden
Doctor – Neal Davies
Nicholas, the Major-Domo – Simon Birchall
Footman – Stephen Charlesworth

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 15 November, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Samuel Barber’s Metropolitan Opera commission Vanessa, first performed by a stellar cast under Dimitri Mitropoulos in January 1958, has perhaps suffered a similar fate to its near-contemporary, Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, in that a post-romantic opera was considered an anachronism at that time – and subsequently, until fairly recently.

Unlike Walton’s opera, however, Vanessa was initially acclaimed, but revivals have been thin on the ground, although the Met did stage Barber’s Revised Version in 1965. The libretto, by fellow-composer and long-term partner Gian Carlo Menotti, whose own operas are surely due for a new lease of life, was suggested by “Seven Gothic Tales” by Isak Dinesen, though in the end, Menotti produced that comparatively rare species – an opera libretto with an original plot.

There is a certain Slavic feel to the setting (located “in northern Europe”) and characters, with more than a hint of a Dostoyevsky-like atmosphere and perhaps even Dickens in the juxtaposition of trivial domestic routine and the playing out of personal tragedy.

The music has a strong vein of lyricism, tempered by a number of more angst-ridden passages, in which the shadow of Berg’s Wozzeck can be discerned. Though in the main, it is the heritage of Puccini and Richard Strauss that Barber turns to. And yet Barber – unlike some others – has assimilated his models and influences and found his own voice which may speak perhaps more readily to present-day listeners than to the audiences he faced during his lifetime.

Leonard Slatkin clearly believes passionately in this piece, and his involved conducting drew confident playing from the BBCSO. The strings were especially rich in tone, though without over-indulging, and woodwind solos were eloquently played, with the mournful cor anglais being especially telling. One or two brass blemishes did not detract from the polish of the whole.

The cast, overall, was a strong one. Christine Brewer, whilst not commanding the heft of Eleanor Steber, who created the part (though, tantalisingly, Barber hoped that Maria Callas might have undertaken the role), nevertheless compelled attention throughout with the sheer amplitude of her singing. This was tempered by an expressive quality, and her more reflective moments revealed a touching vulnerability to the character. Only in the climactic duet with Anatol did one sense the need for more sheer volume from the voices.

Anatol himself, William Burden, was a shade under-powered. Again, comparisons with the first cast (preserved on an RCA recording) are invidious, but Burden is no Nicolai Gedda, and some of his lines were lost. His timbre, per se, is not unattractive, though I did not care for his lapses into near-falsetto which was a characteristic of his quiet singing in the upper register. Ideally, this part requires a bigger voice than Burden currently has at his disposal.

In Susan Graham, the part of Erika, Vanessa’s niece and her rival for Anatol’s love, found a well-nigh-ideal exponent. Graham’s bright, attractive tone suited Barber’s graceful lines perfectly, and her deep and quiet authority at the end of the opera demonstrated how much the character had grown and developed throughout the course of the drama.

The Baroness has little chance to make her presence felt vocally – in the story she refuses to speak with Vanessa and, at its close, with Erika – but Catherine Wyn-Rogers made the most of the opportunities afforded her and impressed with the dark presence of her singing.

Neal Davies provided some much-needed light relief in the role of the family doctor, even if the part was conceived for a voice with a darker hue.

The BBC singers delivered the brief, off-stage, choral contributions securely, whilst the off-stage instrumental music was all-too clearly transmitted via loudspeakers and was consequently too artificial in sound to be convincing.

Annilese Miskimmon was credited for the staging, but this was restricted to characters moving to and from the front of the platform, with occasional looks and gestures.

The evening belonged, ultimately, to Samuel Barber and Leonard Slatkin and I would venture to suggest that this performance – and the forthcoming Chandos recording – will be responsible for the rehabilitation of this too-little-known but convincing and emotional music-drama.

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