Vanessa Synopsis

The Story of Samuel Barber's Famous Opera

Composer Samuel Barber
Composer Samuel Barber. Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Composer: Samuel Barber

Premiered: January 15, 1958 - Metropolitan Opera, New York

Other Popular Opera Synopses:
Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Mozart's The Magic Flute, Verdi's Rigoletto, & Puccini's Madama Butterfly

Setting of Vanessa:
Barber’s Vanessa takes place in the north during the early 1900s.

The Story of Vanessa

Vanessa, ACT 1

Twenty years prior, Vanessa had fallen in love with a man named Anatol.

Before the two lovers could be united, he was called away. In grief, Vanessa covered all the mirrors in her home so as not to look upon her aging face. Only when Anatol returned home would she remove the covers. On this day, Vanessa, her niece Erika, and the Baroness (Vanessa’s mother) wait impatiently for Anatol’s return. Before he arrives, Vanessa covers up her face so that he does not see her. When he arrives, she tells him that if he still loves her she will remove her veil. After he replies he loves her still after all these years, Vanessa uncovers her face. She is taken aback by Anatol. He is not the man she remembers. After telling him she doesn’t recognize him, he confesses that he is Anatol’s son and goes by the same name as his deceased father. Vanessa is upset and leaves the room. The Baroness hurries after her to console her, which leaves Erika and Anatol alone. The two socialize over the meal that was prepared for Vanessa and her lover.

Vanessa, ACT 2

Erika speaks with the Baroness and tells her that during the first night of his stay, Anatol seduced her and they fell in love. The Baroness cannot believe it and scolds her. When Anatol asks to marry Erika, Erika declines, citing that she cannot trust that he is being sincere. When Vanessa converses with Erika, Vanessa, who has nearly driven herself mad, says that she still loves Anatol.

Erika protests and warns her that he is not the same person she fell in love with twenty years ago - he is a different man altogether! The Baroness has a change of heart and tells Erika that she must fight for Anatol’s love. But when he proposes to her again, she refuses. She cannot decide if he is worth her time and love.

Vanessa, ACT 3

During a New Year’s Eve ball, the doctor who is needed to announce the news of the engagement between Anatol and Vanessa becomes quite drunk. The Baroness and Erika did not go to the ball because they didn’t want to celebrate Vanessa’s engagement. Vanessa realizes they are not there and sends the doctor out to get them. While he’s away, Vanessa and Anatol talk about her fears. When the doctor returns and is about to announce the big news, Erika, who does not feel well due to the fact that she is secretly pregnant, comes downstairs and faints. When she recovers, she runs outside into the bitter cold hoping the stress and freezing weather will cause her child to die.

Vanessa, ACT 4

Erika has been found and brought inside to recover. Vanessa is relieved that she is okay, and asks Anatol why she has been acting so strangely. Vanessa wonders if it’s possible that Erika is in love with him.

Anatol is unable to say for certain why her behavior seems so strange, but he assures her that Erika does not love him. Vanessa is ready to live her life anew and begs Anatol to take her someplace far away. Back in Erika’s room, Erika confesses to the Baroness that she was pregnant with Anatol’s child. However, the baby is no longer living. After Vanessa and Anatol make their plans to move to Paris, Vanessa visits with Erika and asks her why she would run out into the cold. Erika lies and tells her it was because she was being foolish. Vanessa explains to her that she is finally moving away to Paris and that she will likely never return to the home she shelled herself in for the past two decades. When Vanessa and Anatol say their goodbyes, they quickly depart to start their new lives. Sadly, Erika takes on the crazed traits of her departed aunt.

She covers all of the mirrors in the house and promises to remove them the day her lover, Anatol returns. For now, it is her turn to wait.