January 28, 2005
New recordings showcase a seminal gay composer
One of the most noteworthy 20th century gay composers, Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is esteemed primarily for his beloved, if overplayed, Adagio for Strings and a handful of works for voice. While the gorgeous, oft-performed 16-minute Knoxville, Summer of 1915 is represented by no less than 12 recordings in print, Barber’s opera Vanessa has received short shrift until now.
Chandos’ new recording of Barber’s revised version of Vanessa features a star-studded line-up of soloists--Susan Graham (Erika), Christine Brewer (Vanessa), and William Burden (Anatol)--that rivals the original cast recording featuring Rosalind Elias, Eleanor Steber, and Nicolai Gedda conducted by the gay Dmitri Mitropoulos. Not only do the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers under Leonard Slatkin do a bang-up job, but Chandos has also gone full out, producing a vivid, state-of-the-art multi-channel SACD that sounds great in two-channel stereo.
Though some politely term Vanessa “American verismo,” mid-century melodrama is far more like it. The opera’s potboiler of a libretto, fashioned by Barber’s longtime companion Gian Carlo Menotti, may occasionally cause eyes to roll, but Barber’s keen dramatic sense and unabashed lyricism do much to save the day.
The story centers around the wealthy Vanessa, who has spent 20 years walled up in her country estate lamenting the end of her affair with a married man named Anatol. Surrounded by her young niece Erika and her elderly mother the Baroness, Vanessa awaits Anatol’s supposed return. In his place arrives his young son, also named Anatol, who within a scene or two impregnates Erika while wooing Vanessa.
The opera opens with two character-defining arias, Erika’s gorgeous “Must the Winter Come So Soon” followed by Vanessa’s urgent “He Has Come!” If the former presents Erika as a virgin of touching vulnerability, the latter introduces an imperious soprano of an ice princess who in short order melts à la Turandot. Erika is not an ideal vehicle for the sensuous Susan Graham, but the mezzo’s beauty of voice creates much sympathy for a pathetic character who in the end walls herself off like her aunt. Soprano Christine Brewer excels as Vanessa; her combination of vocal force and beauty rivals Barber favorite Leontyne Price in “He Shall Come,” everywhere making the character as credible as possible. Brewer’s ability to flawlessly transition from orchestra-dominating utterance to impeccably floated highs makes her a vocal if not visual natural for the part.
Tenor William Burden’s Anatol invokes mixed reactions. With a voice as sweet as his handsome visage, Burden sounds several degrees too nice for a stinker whose cynicism and duplicity deserve contempt. While his “Love has a bitter core, Vanessa” communicates a modicum of irony, his energy seems far more suited for the innocent Peleas he’s singing at the Met than the cunning cad who indelibly wounds Erika while exploiting her aunt. At his best in the tender air “On the Path to the Lake,” where his gorgeous falsetto speaks volumes, Burden inspires listeners to overlook Vanessa and Erika pain and instead throw themselves at Anatol’s feet. Not what Barber and Menotti intended.
Regardless, there’s too much wonderful music in this opera to miss. Beyond a host of memorable solo vehicles for five characters and an Act II Tosca-like duet for Vanessa and Anatol, Barber penned a final act quintet (“To leave, to break, to find, to keep”) that for beauty and poignancy alone rivals the quartet from Rigoletto and sextet from Lucia.
Eleven years before Vanessa’s Salzburg premiere, Barber found an ideal vehicle for his lyricism in James Agee’s Knoxville Summer of 1915. The singsong simplicity of his music’s opening phrases, redolent of a lazy summer evening in Tennessee, draws us into a state of child mind from which the narration flows. Commissioned and premiered by Eleanor Steber, whose 1950 recording reveals a less than ideal vocal maturity and formality of pronunciation, the work demands a soprano with voice and imagination sufficient to segue between the child’s simplicity of utterance and unexpectedly dramatic, precocious questioning.
Of the three versions issued in the last six months, that from the gifted Karina Gauvin and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos) deserves must-hear status thanks in large part to Marin Alsop’s sympathetic conducting. Alsop savors every aspect of the colorful score, paying equal attention to the loud auto, the blue dew on the rough wet grass, and the child’s questioning of ultimate identity. Her conducting perfectly complements Gauvin’s lovely, lyrical (albeit womanly and anything but southern), low-key reading.
To these ears, the Gauvin/Alsop collaboration joins two others of major stature. One is Leontyne Price’s tour de force with the gay Thomas Schippers. Price begins with childlike voice and minimal vibrato, only to transition into such an unrivalled combination of vocal and orchestral splendor as to make us care less that the child has inexplicably vanished. The other is Dawn Upshaw’s partnership with David Zinman, where her girl-like timbre and shimmering vibrato on high prove irresistible.
Mention of Price draws us to Bridge’s invaluable issue of Leontyne Price’s history-defining Library of Congress 1953 recital with Barber at the piano. This world premiere of Barber’s Hermit Songs has received numerous issues, but never before with the entire recital (including music by Sauguet, Poulenc and Fauré) intact. Price inspired for four Barber premieres, the third being his opera Antony and Cleopatra, whose failed 1966 Met opening was due in part to a malfunctioning, life imitates art stage set that left Ms. Price trapped in a pyramid à la Aida. She was all of 26 in 1953, fresh from touring in Porgy and Bess to reveal a voice well on its way to the glorious bloom of womanhood. By the time she and Barber made their New York recital début the following year, the title “goddess” had been bestowed upon her.
The Bridge disc also includes baritone Samuel Barber’s self-accompanied 1938 recital at the Curtis School of Music. Barber’s remarkably even vocal production and gift for lyrical utterance speak volumes about his future compositions. Don’t miss this disc.
Awaiting U.S. release is Alsop’s final installment in her Naxos Barber series. Headlined by the Capricorn Concerto, named for a house Barber shared with Menotti, the CD also includes the intermezzo from Vanessa and a late Canzonetta posthumously scored by Barber’s friend Charles Turner. Given Gramophone critic Peter Dickinson’s prediction that the elegiac Canzonetta “could become as popular as the famous Adagio,” anticipation of a sort far more positive than Vanessa’s is the order of the day.