This season, Spoleto Festival USA presents Vanessa, Samuel Barber’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera about love, loss, and longing. With one of the most exquisite and sweepingly beautiful scores of the 20th century, the work—which The Washington Post once called “the finest American opera”—also has a unique Spoleto history: Gian Carlo Menotti, Spoleto’s founder, created the libretto and directed the production’s 1958 world premiere as well as its Spoleto debut in 1978.
After 45 years, Vanessa makes a triumphant return to Charleston, this time with Timothy Myers at the conductor’s rostrum. Myers, who leads orchestras around the world and serves as Austin Opera’s Principal Conductor & Artistic Advisor, received critical acclaim for his handling of the opera: “Myers relishes [Vanessa’s] magnificence and brings out its intriguing detail” (The Telegraph). At Spoleto, he’ll conduct the Festival Orchestra, Festival Chorus, and a stellar cast featuring American soprano Nicole Heaston.
In anticipation of Vanessa’s opening on May 27 at the Charleston Gaillard Center, we asked Myers to share his essential Barber playlist—a mix of the composer’s most recognizable works to those that sing a little more under the radar.
Track 1: Nocturne, “Homage to John Field,” op. 33 – John Browning
“This is the first piece of Barber’s I performed. Though many think of Chopin as the father of the nocturne, Chopin was actually predated many decades by John Field—which explains Barber’s homage in the title. In the traditional style of a nocturne, a simple left hand accompaniment provides harmonic structure, while flexibly allows the right hand to soar and embellish melodically.”
Track 2: Symphony No. 1 in One Movement, op. 9 – Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conductor Neeme Järvi
“While this piece is purely instrumental, I’ve always felt that it was telling a story without words, an instrumental opera of sorts. Barber’s ability to move between styles and textures to create a cohesive tone poem never ceases to amaze.”
Track 3: “Must the Winter Come So Soon,” from Vanessa – Andrea Matthews as Erika, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conductor Gil Rose
“Very early in Vanessa we are treated to this moving aria sung by Erika, Vanessa’s niece. Though the soundscape on the surface is one of beauty, just underneath there are pulsing quarter notes that indicate the not-quickly-enough passing of time as well as Erika’s youthful desire to explore beyond her small world.”
Track 4: “Do not utter a word,” from Vanessa – Eleanor Steber as Vanessa, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos
“Just after ‘Must the Winter Come So Soon,’ Vanessa sings her first aria. Preceded by a crashing orchestral introduction, the aria begins in silence with a tightly restricted range, then is joined by the clarinet in a duet. The clarinet portrays the freedom Vanessa wishes to have, while the restricted vocal range and chromaticism paint her reticence.”
Track 5: Violin Concerto, pp. 14, Movement 3 – Gil Shaham, violin, New York Philharmonic, conductor David Robertson
“With an origin story of classical music lore, the intensely virtuosic third movement of Barber’s violin concerto propels to the very end with breathless, perpetual motion.”
Track 6: Knoxville, Summer of 1915, op. 24 – Barbara Hendricks, London Symphony Orchestra, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas
“Written in 1947—10 years before Vanessa—Knoxville exemplifies Barber’s knack for setting a vocal line so it is sing-able and, with some attention by the artist, clearly understood. I particularly love the first part, with its atmospheric soundscape and ‘bluesy’ harmonies.”
Track 7: Adagio for Strings, op. 11 – Berliner Philharmoniker, conductor Simon Rattle
“Perhaps Barber’s best known individual work, the Adagio is a string orchestral arrangement of his string quartet’s second movement. With emotionally laden harmonies and a melody that ranges from plaintively limpid to urgently passionate, it’s no wonder that this piece has reinforced many poignant movie scenes—like the 1986 Vietnam War film, Platoon.”