Vanessa, Glyndebourne, August 2018

Appreciation of a previously unknown opera can be helped enormously by the staging, and Keith Warner’s production evokes the mystery and repressed sensuality of this intriguing work by Samuel Barber.

Erika and Vanessa, all images GFO/ Tristram Kenton

The story is that Vanessa, living with her mother the Baroness, and her niece Erika (possibly her daughter?), awaits the return of her one-time lover Anatol. In a grand house where she has covered all the mirrors to hide the passage of time, the late Anatol’s surrogate appears — his son. Both Vanessa and Erika fall for this new Anatol, whose brief liaison with the niece leads to an unwanted pregnancy that she terminates, rejecting him, and leaving him to marry her aunt. In the end she prepares to follow her aunt in awaiting his return.

Vanessa and Anatol

Warner handles this strange world of repeated patterns using mirrors. Giant mirrors through which one sees as through a glass darkly. Mirrors that can move and at one point provide images stretching to infinity. The Baroness does not speak to her daughter and ends up not speaking to her granddaughter, but Warner shows us more: a birth at the start (Erika?) and an insouciance in Anatol shown by a frisson of recognition with one of the maids. With Mark Jonathan’s wonderful lighting illuminating images within, behind and in front of the mirrors, the visual beauty of Ashley Martin-Davis’s remarkable designs recalls those black and white photographs on which subtle colouring was occasionally superimposed. A wonderful evocation of the passing of time.

Erika and the Old Baroness

When this opera premiered in 1958 at the Met in New York it received huge audience approval, and the critics were generally very positive, but in Salzburg the following summer, the critics disapproved. The setting was identified as European, and compared unfavourably with the work of the top twentieth century European composers, but this is unfair. For me the music recalls America, though the setting could easily be Russian with its musical allusion to Mussorgsky, but Barber’s opera must be taken on its own terms, where the refined melancholy of the music reveals wonderful high moments, such as Erika’s soliloquy early in Act 1, Must the winter come so soon, and the quintet towards the end of the opera.

Vanessa departs and Erika remains

The cast delivered a superb performance, with Virginie Verrez an ethereally beautiful Erika who fully expresses her character’s passions and frustrations, contrasting with Emma Bell’s finely nuanced and more mature reading of Vanessa herself. As Anatol, the clear and honest sounding tenor of Edgaras Montvidas provided a deceptive surface to this man who can sing that, “Love has a bitter core, Vanessa. Do not taste too deep. Do not search into the past. He who hungers for the past will be fed on lies”. The libretto, written by Barber’s partner Gian Carlo Menotti — no mean opera composer himself — combines introspection with direct feeling, and I loved the musical ending of the first part as Erika rejects Anatol, saying, “Let Vanessa have you, she who for so little had to wait so long”.

Complementing the three main principals, Donnie Ray Albert gave a beautifully sympathetic portrayal of the Old Doctor, and Rosalind Plowright, stepping in to replace Doris Soffel, was magnificent as the Old Baroness, an aging but elegant figure moving across the stage with poise and decorum. Inspiring the performance of singers and orchestra alike was conductor Jakub Hrůša, who exhibits the full measure of Barber’s multi-faceted score. If I had to choose one thing to attend at Glyndebourne this summer, this would be it.

Until August 26 — for details click here.

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