Friday, January 22, 2010

Barber's Vanessa: The Great American Opera That Wasn't

To commemorate Samuel Barber's centenary, the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts a performance from the first run of Samuel Barber's Vanessa on Saturday, and it's worth pointing out how momentous an occasion the 1958 premiere was. Just as people had always been on the lookout for the great American novel in the first half of the twentieth century, so were music fans waiting for an American opera to enter the classical music canon.

At first, it seemed that Vanessa (synopsis here) would fit the bill. Local critics were quick to praise it, emphasizing that the work was not just good, it was homegrown. Barber won his first of two Pulitzer Prizes on the strength of the work. But after word got back to the US that performances at the Salzburg Festival were unsuccessful and small audiences in the 1958-1959 season, Vanessa was out of the Met's repertory. The company presented a revised version of the opera in 1965, but by then Vanessa had lost its luster.

I've been getting to know this opera over the last couple of days, and have particularly enjoyed the Act I aria "Must the Winter Come So Soon," performed here by Frederica von Stade at a 1992 gala with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and James Conlon.