The Operas of Samuel Barber: Some recorded materials of “Vanessa” and “Antony and Cleopatra”

July 9, 2009

Vanessa small

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Samuel Barber was a fine Baritone, nephew of a famous contralto Louise Homer and long-term partner of opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti. By all accounts he was an avid opera-goer and –lover. Therefore it seems odd that, his first opera, “Vanessa” was written when he was 48. It seems he took his preparations very seriously indeed. Commissioned by the Metropolitan in New York, its first performance was so successful it commissioned a second opera “Antony and Cleopatra”. After it’s first triumphant season at the Met, “Vanessa” was however unable to secure a regular foothold in the repertoire of the Met or elsewhere. “Antony and Cleopatra” suffered the same fate, despite a sumptuous first production by Franco Zefirelli. Barber and Rudolf Bing conceived the role of Vanessa for Maria Callas, and negotiations advanced well, but it is one of those historic might-have-beens that this never materialised.

Barber revised “Vanessa” in an attempt to make it more “user-friendly” and removed colloratura passages such as the “Skating Aria”, settling the “fach” of the leading lady as a lirico spinto.

Video Clips of Vanessa

San Diego Opera Talk with Nick Reveles: Vanessa – Inspired by a novel by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen: “Out of Africa”), Samuel Barber’s Vanessa was snubbed by “modern” composers. But its love story and lush, romantic music made it an instant hit with audiences and won Barber the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Nicolas Reveles hosts an intimate portrait of the opera and its creator. Series: “San Diego OperaTalk! with Nick Reveles” [11/2004] [Humanities] [Arts and Music] [Show ID: 8669]

“Do not utter a word” – Eleanor Steber – The creator of the role of Vanessa learnt the opera in 6 weeks after Sena Jurinac pulled out of the first production. She included the original colloratura aria which was later cut. She sang the role in the first recording of the opera, oposite Swedish tneor Nicolai Gedda. Steber also commissioned “Knoxville: Summer of 1915″ from Barber, and recorded it twice, both in its version for orchestra and piano. Here you can hear a live version with piano from Carnegie Hall.  The accompanist is her longtime accompanist Edwin Bittcliffe:  Knoxville: Summer of 1915” Part 1, Part 2

“Do not utter a word” – Leontyne Price – One of the great interpretations

ACT 1 excerpt: Kiri te Kanawa (Monte-Carlo) – Perhaps a surprising choice of casting, yet Kiri reveals the lyric side of the writing.

ACT 2 excerpt: Kiri te Kanawa (Monte Carlo)

ACT 3 Excerpt: Kiri Te Kanawa (Monte Carlo)

ACT 4 Exceprt: Kiri te Kanawa (Monte Carlo)

“Must the winter come so soon” Erika’s first aria here sung by Mary Gayle Greene, who was a Met Audition winner, now teaching in North Carolina. Sung with Piano Accompaniment

Lauren Flanigan: New York City Opera – an assumption of the role that surely needs to be recorded on CD

Video Clips of Antony and Cleopatra

Barber’s attempts at extending the shelf-life of this opera included making a chamber-reduction of the score, as well as a translation into Italian.

“Give me my robe” Leontyne Price

“Give me my robe” Catherine Malfitano

“Give me some music”: Catherine Malfitano

“Death of Enobarbus”: Eric Halfvarson

“I am sick and sullen” Catherine Malfitano and R.Cowan Chicago 1991

“O take those lips away: Catherine Malfitano and R.Cowan Chicago 1991

Barber also wrote a One-Act Opera “A hand of Bridge”

I hope to see more recordings and live performances of these powerful works.

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