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Samuel Barber

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Vanessa (1957)
Text Writer
Libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti.
G Schirmer Inc
Opera and Music Theatre
Sub Category
Grand Opera
Year Composed
2 Hours 0 Minutes
SATB chorus
English, German, Italian
Soprano, Mezzo soprano, Tenor, Baritone [=Bass Baritone], Alto, 2 Basses, silent role
Alternate Orchestration
reduced orchestration by James Medvitz: 2(pic).1+ca.2(bcl).2/3.2.2(btbn).1/syn(covering organ, celesta, accordion parts of the original)/timp.perc/hp/str — stage band:1111/2100/snare dm/str
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Programme Note
Samuel Barber Vanessa (1957)
1958 Pulitzer Prize in Music

Librettist Note:

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.

—Gian Carlo Menotti

Cast List:

   VANESSA, a lady of great beauty, in her late thirties: Soprano
   ERIKA, her niece, a young girl of twenty: Mezzo-Soprano
   THE OLD BARONESS, Vanessa's mother and Erika's grandmother: Contralto
   ANATOL, a handsome young man in his early twenties: Tenor
   THE OLD DOCTOR: Baritone
   NICHOLAS, the Major-Domo: Bass
   FOOTMAN: Bass
   The Young Pastor, Servants, Guests, Peasants, their Children, Musicians.


At Vanessa’s country estate, around 1905, Vanessa meets Anatol, the son of a long-past lover and becomes close to him, as does her niece, Erika. Even though Erika says she is pregnant by Anatol, she refuses his offer of marriage. Vanessa and Anatol marry instead and go off, leaving Erika to wait for her true love.

View Full Score Act 2 & 3

  • Ensemble
    Ukranian National Capella “Dumka” / National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
    Gil Rose
  • Ensemble
    Metropolitan Opera
    Dimitri Mitropoulos
    RCA Victor Gold Seal:
  • Ensemble
    Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
    Dimitri Mitropoulos
The Mannes production, an ambitious undertaking directed by Jay Lesenger, spoke well of the growth and success of the school’s opera program. It also spoke for Vanessa, a work that, despite winning the Pulitzer Prize for music, has still not secured the spot in the repertory it deserves.

At the time of its premiere, composers who wrote in complex modernist idioms and claimed the intellectual high ground dismissed Vanessa as hopelessly Neo-Romantic. That taint may have had some effect. Still, those pointless stylistic battles are long past, and Barber’s richly chromatic harmonic language, while moored to tonality, is alive with angst, dissonance and turbulence. The musically striking and dramatically trenchant qualities of Vanessa came through in the Mannes performance, with the conductor Joseph Colaneri leading this teeming, often difficult score.
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times,07/05/2017
Fifty-eight years have passed since the premiere of Vanessa, an opera with music by Samuel Barber to a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, and it hasn’t grown any less disquieting with the passing decades. On Saturday night, The Santa Fe Opera had its first go at the piece through a production that honors its formidable strengths while retaining its spirit of mystery.
James M. Keller, The New Mexican,31/07/2016
“Once in a while an opera company presents a new production that prompts a re-evaluation of a misunderstood work. That’s what happened on Sunday when New York City Opera unveiled its staging of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. From the fitful orchestral music that opens the score, Barber comes across as a composer fully aware of what had been going on around him in contemporary music. He was never really tempted by dodecaphonic techniques and remained essentially a tonal composer. Still, the music teems with astringent orchestral flourishes, skittish thematic riffs with hints of 12-tone contrapuntal writing and pungently chromatic harmony. Whole stretches are plaintively tonal and colorfully scored, music at once elegant and fraught with tension. Barber’s melodic invention never flags, and he writes deftly for the voice without milking vocal lines. Vanessa is rich with set-piece arias and ensembles, and here you sometimes wish that Barber had been less beholden to old models. The set pieces are skillfully conceived and always affecting, especially the ingenious quintet (a canon) near the end. But they sometimes stop the dramatic flow. For example, Vanessa sings a yearning Act I aria to the man she believes to be her former lover, which ends just at the moment she discovers the truth. But on Sunday, hearing the aria conclude so definitively, the audience understandably broke into applause, breaking the spell completely. Still, Vanessa is an opera that knows what it is. Composers today writing in neo-Romantic styles can seem tentative in taking this conventional approach. No wonder. Barber was there first, and did it much better. Could it be time to reconsider Antony and Cleopatra, Barber’s much maligned 1966 opera, in a comparably illuminating production?”
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times,06/11/2007
The very real merits of Barber's lush, bittersweet VANESSA are in the score itself, which is ornate, vivid, tinged with modernism yet rooted in lyrical tradition... [The] music is deeply, richly autumnal. Barber never forgets that he is writing for the human voice, with all the glories and frailties that entails. At no point does he fall into the trap of treating the voice as merely another virtuoso instrument with which to explore the stratosphere. The final quintet has been justly celebrated and there are many other [wonderful] moments. This attractive, atmospheric production may be recommended to anybody with a fondness for this opera.
Tim Page, The Washington Post,01/01/0001
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