First premiering on January 15, 1958, Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” draws inspiration from Isak Dinesen’s novella “Seven Gothic Tales.”
At its premiere, “Vanessa” was praised for being a grand opera penned by an American composer, though later critics, comparing it to more famous works, insist that the work is American only insofar as Barber himself was born in the country.
The opera deals with the theme of idealized love and romance in the face of reality and the passing of time.
Short Plot Summary
In the home of an old baroness, her daughter Vanessa readies for an elegant dinner reception. The anticipated guest is Anatol, who was Vanessa’s lover twenty years ago; since he left, Vanessa has kept all the mirrors in the house covered in an attempt to preserve the beauty that captured his heart. Her mother, having refused to speak to Vanessa out of disapproval for her lover, retires to bed. When Anatol arrives, Vanessa dims the lights and implores him to declare his love again. When he affirms that he does, Vanessa is shocked to learn that the man before her is Anatol’s son, who bears the same name as his now-deceased father. Nearly fainting from this revelation, Vanessa is helped to her bed by her niece Erika, to whom Anatol explains the circumstances of his arrival. Anatol and Erika share the wine and food intended for Vanessa and his father, spending the night together.
The next month, Erika confides in her grandmother that on the night of Anatol’s arrival he seduced her. While the young Anatol has promised to marry her, Erika refuses unless she truly loves him. Vanessa and Anatol return to the house after spending the day ice-skating. Although Vanessa tells Erika that she has fallen for her former lover’s son, Erika does not believe young Anatol worthy of her love; when Anatol proposes to Erika once more, she again refuses him. At a New Year’s party, the Old Baroness and Erika refuse to come downstairs to hear the announcement of Anatol and Vanessa’s engagement. When Erika, who is now pregnant, hears of this news she faints. When she awakens she runs out into the freezing cold, intent on causing herself to miscarry.
Erika is found by Anatol and a group of servants, who return her to her bed. Unable to make sense of her niece’s actions, Vanessa begs Anatol to take her away from the house, and he complies. When Erika reveals to the Old Baroness of her pregnancy and miscarriage, her grandmother leaves without a word. A week later, Vanessa and Anatol finally depart for Paris together. Erika orders the mirrors of the house covered as Vanessa had them, affirming that it is now her turn to wait.
Watch and Listen
Here is a production from 2001 starring Kiri Te Kanawa.