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Ionarts in Santa Fe: Further Thoughts on 'Vanessa'

Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez (Erika) in Vanessa (Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016)

Charles T. Downey, Santa Fe Opera, part 1: Celebrating 60 with two rarities and Strauss (of course)
Washington Post, July 31

available at Amazon
Barber, Vanessa (rev. version), C. Brewer, S. Graham, W. Burden, BBC Symphony Orchestra, L. Slatkin
(Chandos, 2004)
Librettist Gian-Carlo Menotti drew inspiration from the bleak spirit of Karen Blixen’s Seven Gothic Tales in this original story. Set in a manor house in an unnamed northern climate, very much like Rungstedlund, the manor house in rural Denmark where Blixen grew up, the tense, formal atmosphere has some possible resonance with details of Blixen's life. Blixen's father hanged himself when she was a child, after he had impregnated one of the maids, infuriating his severe mother-in-law. Although she was invited to the premiere of Vanessa, Blixen reportedly left partway through, claiming illness, but perhaps she saw her own life reflected too much in the story.

The air of Greek tragedy, not just the allusion to Oedipus Rex in the first act that possibly provides a clue to Erika's hidden identity as Vanessa's daughter, pervades the work, as Menotti described it in his note to the libretto: "This is the story of two women, Vanessa and Erika, caught in the central dilemma which faces every human being: whether to fight for one's ideals to the point of shutting oneself off from reality, or compromise with what life has to offer, even lying to oneself for the mere sake of living. Like a sullen Greek chorus, a third woman (the old Grandmother) condemns by her very silence the refusal first of Vanessa, then of Erika, to accept the bitter truth that life offers no solution except its own inherent struggle. When Vanessa, in her final eagerness to embrace life, realizes this truth, it is perhaps too late."

Other Reviews:

James M. Keller, Opera goes to the movies: SFO puts cinematic twist on ‘Vanessa’ (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 31)

John Stege, Samuel Barber’s Wintry Tale (Santa Fe Reporter, August 2)

James L. Paulk, Palette Of Love Is Noir, Blue & Gray At Santa Fe Opera (Classical Voice North America, August 3)

Scott Cantrell, Santa Fe Opera: Barber's 'Vanessa' makes for a magical night (Dallas Morning News, August 4)

Terry Ponick, Santa Fe Opera's elegant, disturbing 'Vanessa' (Communities Digital News, August 14)

George Loomis, Vanessa, Santa Fe Opera — review: ‘An engrossing production’ (Financial Times, August 15)
The Oedipal struggle features mother and daughter (Vanessa and Erika, disguised as aunt and niece) both drawn to the same man, at once father, husband, and brother. When Anatol asks Erika who she is, she replies, "Sometimes I am her niece but mostly her shadow." In Act III, Vanessa, terrified that Erika will be found dead, calls out, "I love you, Erika, I have always loved you as if you were my own child, my own daughter." When the Baroness realizes that Erika has lost Anatol's unborn child and is ruined, she stops talking to Erika, which seems to indicate that is why she had stopped speaking to Vanessa. There is no mention of Erika's parents at any point in the libretto.

Another mythological allusion passes by even faster, when Anatol calls Vanessa "my Vanessa, my Ariadne." Is Anatol Theseus, who will abandon Vanessa, or is he Dionysos, who has come to rescue her on Naxos? In that case Anatol's father would be Theseus, who abandoned her, and now Anatol the younger is Dionysos, who rescues her. Barber's use of leitmotifs, which pervade the work, is complex, something that Prof. Robert Larsen studied in some detail in his Master's thesis but did not publish as far as I can determine. The Pulitzer Prize awarded to Barber for this opera, in 1958, was well deserved indeed.

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