Barber: Vanessa

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Vanessa
PERFORMER: Christine Brewer, Susan Graham, William Burden, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Neal Davies; BBC Singers, BBC SO/ Leonard Slatkin
Written in the mid-1950s, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is roughly contemporary with William Walton’s Troilus and Cressida and suffered the same problems of acceptance by being a late-Romantic work in what was then an avant-garde world. But times change and such music is back in favour – witness the rash of grand opera blockbusters from today’s American composers. Vanessa is also that rare thing, an opera on an original plot, concocted by Barber and his librettist partner Gian Carlo Menotti around the rivalry in love between Vanessa and her niece Erika for Anatol, the son of Vanessa’s former lover. It was first recorded by RCA in 1958, the year of its Met premiere, with the original cast, including Eleanor Steber, Nicolai Gedda and Regina Resnik, but this is not currently available. A year ago, Naxos released a version combining Ukrainian forces with the cast of a recent Boston performance (reviewed December 2003), let down by the singing of the Vanessa and Erika. Now we have what must be the most desirable version ever, with two leading Straussians in Christine Brewer and Susan Graham revelling in Barber’s soaring vocal lines. William Burden, as Anatol, might not be a Gedda, but he has the right mix of ardour and vocal allure for the role. There are captivating cameos from Catherine Wyn-Rogers as the weird Old Baroness and Neal Davies as the avuncular Old Doctor and the BBC Singers unsurprisingly make a better impression in the party scene than their Ukrainian counterpart. Above all, the opera is lovingly conducted by Leonard Slatkin, who with the BBC Symphony Orchestra draws all the power, beauty and wit from Barber’s score. And the sound (recorded at the Barbican at the time of a concert performance in 2003) is generous and warm. Matthew Rye