OP3348. VANESSA (Samuel Barber), Live Performance, 1 Feb., 1958, w.Mitropoulos Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, Regina Resnik, Nicolai Gedda, Giorgio Tozzi, etc. (All-CREATOR cast, 15 January, 1958, Metropolitan Opera House). (Canada) 2-Yves St Laurent T-957.
"Strangely enough, I don't think I really enjoyed VANESSA with my usual relish that season. I had learned it so fast that I was never quite as sure of it that first year as I was of my other roles. I was always conscious of small mistakes, and that bothered me. The recording, on the other hand, is musically perfect. Nevertheless, I loved the opera. I don't think I could have done what I did if I hadn't adored the work itself. It not only seemed to have been written for me. It was me!....Anyone who was backstage during the first and subsequent performances of VANESSA knows that I came off the stage after that big first act so near to collapse that the story got around that I had fainted. VANESSA took absolutely everything out of me. Until then, I'd always been able to keep something in reserve. I had always been able to do my roles and have a little bit left over. But as Vanessa, I spent everything."
- Eleanor Steber, ELEANOR STEBER, AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, p.193
"...let me say once again how immensely grateful we all are for your courageous and helpful action in taking over Vanessa. You proved once more that a great artist...[can create] an extraordinary feat and wonderful performance justify everything. Indeed, it was a triumph for you."
- Sir Rudolf Bing, ELEANOR STEBER, AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, p.194
“If you were attempting to argue the case of live-performance recordings over studio efforts, Samuel Barber’s VANESSA could be Exhibit A. RCA made a fine studio recording shortly after the opera’s opening run at the Met in 1958. (The only revival came in 1965 under William Steinberg.) Walter Simmons enthusiastically praised that effort when it was reissued on CD in 1990 (FANFARE 14:3), putting it on his ‘Want List’ for 1991. I have long admired the recording, too, but it is a pale substitute for the broadcast from the 1958 season, issued here in fine monaural sound by St. Laurent Studio. Even though the RCA is a fine example of stereophonic recording in the late Fifties, and a wider range of orchestral color is vividly evident, whenever I want to hear VANESSA again, I will turn to the version here.
The first point to make is that I will want to hear VANESSA again. Although it has not entered the repertoire in the way that PORGY AND BESS and perhaps Carlisle Floyd’s SUSANNAH and Jake Heggie’s DEAD MAN WALKING have, Barber’s opera has recently been experiencing a well-deserved resurgence of interest. The work was accused when it was premiered of being derivative, and certainly Barber’s melodic gift at times recalls Puccini, and his vivid sense of orchestral color might remind one of Richard Strauss. But now that we know the composer’s output more or less in full, we can recognize that Barber fashioned his own style as a continuation of the tradition in which he was brought up. I don’t know when it was decided that composers had to be completely original and not sound as if they were seriously influenced by anyone else (a proposition that wouldn’t work for Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bach, and many others). Barber sounds like Barber, but he also absorbed and incorporated that which went before him.
Gian Carlo Menotti’s melodramatic libretto is not particularly strong, but it is no weaker or more preposterous than the libretti of IL TROVATORE, LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, and many other works that we continue to embrace, and the characters are believable. It is worth pointing out that Barber’s music helps us empathize with Vanessa and her niece Erika, even though they are presented as psychologically unstable.
The Met gave Barber an all-star cast. Eleanor Steber is magnificent, vocally and dramatically, in the title role, and Rosalind Elias as Erika is equally affecting. Both singers pay attention to their words, not only enunciating with clarity but also allowing their vocal color and inflections to accurately reflect the text. Vanessa and Erika are proud but insecure women, and Steber and Elias manage to reflect the complexities of their characters with more specificity and dramatic flair than on the studio recording. Their timbres are different enough that one always recognizes which one is singing. The role of Erika is every bit as crucial to the opera’s success as the title role, and this is one of Elias’ finest achievements. Even more improved over the RCA set is Nicolai Gedda, whose aria 'Outside this house the world has changed' becomes the centerpiece of the second act. A good place to do an A-B comparison with the studio recording is that aria. Gedda sings very well for RCA, but he practically explodes with intensity here. Giorgio Tozzi and Regina Resnik are superb in their supporting roles, and in Dimitri Mitropoulos VANESSA has a conductor totally sympathetic to the composer’s idiom. The supple orchestral accompaniment to the Doctor’s touching aria, 'For every love there is a last farewell', is almost heartbreaking, as is Tozzi’s singing. The Met orchestra plays well despite an occasional bobble, unavoidable in a live performance without patchwork.
In Mitropoulos’ conducting, the difference between the RCA set and this Met broadcast is also dramatic. The studio rendition has always sounded to me as if everyone involved was too conscious that they were setting down on disc a permanent document for history....With a separation of a few days, I listened straight through to the RCA set and this one. It was two different experiences, and this one was by far the more thrilling and gratifying. The monaural broadcast sound is fine, cleanly reproduced here by St. Laurent Studio."
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“The world premiere of Samuel Barber's VANESSA at the Metropolitan Opera House last night added up to a great triumph for the composer, the librettist, Gian Carlo Menotti, for conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and for a fine cast. A brilliant audience which crowded the vast spaces of the Metropolitan to capacity, singled out the principals for repeated applause and gave the composer and his associates 17 calls at the final curtain….The new opera…was given a sumptuous and meticulously detailed setting by Cecil Beaton, which emphasized the Northern background of the story of love lost and love regained.
Mr. Barber has written a sophisticated score with plenty of vocal opportunities for the singers. The preludes which anticipated the scenes were particularly evocative. There were solos for soprano Eleanor Steber and duets between the heroine and tenor Nicolai Gedda, excellent in the role of the volatile Anatol. Strong personal successes were obtained by Rosalind Elias, as the forsaken Erika, and by Giorgio Tozzi as a kindly and bibulous family doctor. Mr. Menotti's flair for the theater was apparent in his interesting and deeply psychological libretto, and as stage director, Mr. Menotti showed that he is indeed a child of the theater. Miss Steber, who consented to sing the role of Vanessa, when European diva Sena Jurinac was unable to fulfill her contract due to illness, sang with the sovereign musicianship for which she is noted.
Comments in the lobby during intermission would indicate that the opera struck its mark with many in the audience. General sentiments applauded the fine workmanship of the score and rejoiced in the fact that an American opera, long overdue, had made its appearance at our principal opera house.
- Max De Schauensee, THE PHILADELPHIA BULLETIN (datelined New York)
“The cast is at ease in their roles, even though Steber took the difficult title part only six weeks ago when the soprano originally engaged was reported ill in Europe. Nicolai Gedda, the Met's new Swedish tenor, distinguished himself in every way, especially for his superb English, the finest of the otherwise American cast. Rosalind Elias proved a notable singing actress as Erika, Regina Resnik, in a part of ungrateful silences, was a powerful dramatic element. Giorgio Tozzi's doctor was in some ways the best part of the entire opera, sung and acted to great effect in the face of a tricky song and dance routine and drunk scene.
The evening's greatest single ovation went to Dimitri Mitropoulos for the authority of his impassioned reading of the score. It was a high triumph.”
- Paul Hume, THE WASHINGTON POST