BARBER: Vanessa (Opera in Three Acts)
Ellen Chickering (Vanessa); Andrea Matthews (Erika); Marion Dry (The Old Baroness); Ray Bauwens (Anatol); Richard Conrad (The Old Doctor); Philip Lima (Nicholas); Ukrainian National Capella "Dumka;" National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Gil Rose, cond.
NAXOS 8.669140-41 (2 CDs) (B) (DDD) TT: 55:08 & 65:51

Arias from William Tell, Le fille du régiment, La favorite, Il pirata, La fidanzata córsa, Carmen, I Lombardi, Luisa Miller, Il trovatore and Cavalleria Rusticana
Marcello Giordani, tenor; Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus of the Bellini Theatre, Catania; Steven Mercurio, cond.
NAXOS 8.557269 (B) (DDD) TT: 58:29

Naxos is to be commended for issuing this recording of Samuel Barber's opera Vanessa. After the war, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned an opera from Barber, already well-known for his violin concerto, Adagio for Strings, Essays for Orchestra, two symphonies and many works for voice including Knoxville: Summer of 1915. After unsuccessful attempts to have Thornton Wilder, James Agee, and Stephen Spender write the libretto, Barber's life-long friend and companion Gian Carlo Menotti agreed to do the task, although he took his time about it; it was about two years before he finished the project. Barber wanted Maria Callas to sing the title role, but she felt the secondary role of Erika was stronger and refused to consider it. Then it was decided soprano Sena Jurinac would make her Met debut in the role and the Czech soprano was enthusiastic about the prospect. Barber spent the summer of 1957 in Italy working with conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos on orchestration, coaching Jurinac in Vienna, and Rosalind Elias, who was selected to sing Erika, in Rome. Menotti would be the stage director, English designer Cecil Beaton would create both sets and costumes Then Jurinac became ill and could not appear. American soprano Eleanor Steber stepped in; she already was associated with Barber as she had commissioned Knoxville from him ten years earlier. Vanessa's premiere took place at the Met January 15, 1958 and was well-received by both audiences and critics.The cast was impressive: Eleanor Steber as Vanessa, Nicolai Gedda as Anatol, Rosalind Elias as Erika, Regina Resnik as the Baroness and Giorgio Tozzi as the Doctor. It remained in the Met repertory for two years and became the first American opera to be performed at the Salzburg Festival, mostly with the original cast. Performances have been sporadic since that time. There was a Met production of a revised version in 1978, and Menotti presented it (in Italian) in 1961 at his Spoletto Festival, again there a decade later (in English), a performance that was seen on public television. RCA's recording with the original cast was briefly available on DC (7899), so this Naxos release is welcome. A cast and conductor of a recent Boston production went to Ukrainian Radio studios for two weeks in May/June 2002 doubtless because of lower recordings costs. It might seem to have a Ukrainian orchestra and chorus performing American music, but they do their task admirably. The cast can't match vocal splendor of the original production, but they are of high level, and I enjoyed the resonant sound picture provided by producer Blanton Alspaugh and his three-engineer staff. Not only is there a synopsis of the opera, but the complete libretto as well

The back of the jewel case of operatic arias sung by tenor Marcello Giordani states he is "one of the leading Romantic tenors of the present day." The 40-year old Sicilian tenor made his debut in 1989, had a "vocal crisis" about 1994, worked hard to overcome this and now is booked heavily for the next few years. He has appeared often in many of the world's major opera houses including the Metropolitan, Covent Garden, La Scala, Vienna, Zurich and Verona. This season Giordani will be featured in the Met's new production of Benvenuto Cellini. James Levine said he felt Giordani would be perfect for the title role. A feature article in the November 23, 2003 New York Times tells of Giordani's career and his research into roles he sings, which now include Rossini and Bellini as well as the dramatic Verdi and Puccini roles.

In 1998 Giordani sang a major role in the Philips recording of Verdi's Jerusalem. This is his first solo CD and one wonders why, based on what is heard on this disk, Giordani is rated so highly. His voice is uneven, occasionally raspy as here recorded, and while he negotiates those high notes with more or less accurate pitch, there always is a sense of strain and he swoops into many notes. "Di quella pira," in particular, is mediocre. Naxos provides original texts with English translations, their engineering is fine, but this CD raises questions about Giordani's qualifications. Texts are provided in original languages and English.

R.E.B. (December 2003)