United Kingdom Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018  – Barber, Vanessa: Soloists, The Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša (conductor), Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Sussex, 6.8.2018. (RB)
Erika – Virginie Verrez
Vanessa – Emma Bell
Anatol – Edgaras Montvidas
The Old Baroness – Rosalind Plowright
The Old Doctor – Donnie Ray Albert
Nicholas, the Major-Domo – William Thomas
Footman – Romanas Kudriašovas
Director – Keith Warner
Designer – Ashley Martin-Davis
Lighting Designer – Mark Jonathan
Movement Director – Michael Barry
Projection Designer – Alex Uragallo
Glyndebourne has successfully staged a number of lesser known operas in recent years, so Barber’s Vanessa was an intriguing choice to end this year’s festival. The opera was first staged in 1958 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York to vast critical acclaim. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize but met with a mixed reception in the Salzburg Festival in the same year. Barber revised the work in 1964, reducing it from a four-Act to a three-Act opera. His efforts went unrewarded with the work languishing in relative obscurity. I was not familiar with the opera before this performance but, having now heard it, I regard it as a scandal that music of this quality has gone unrecognised for so long. It is to the credit of both the Wexford Opera Festival (who staged it in 2016) and to Glyndebourne that this terrific piece is now gaining much greater exposure.
The libretto was written by Barber’s long-term partner, Gian Carlo Menotti, who based it on a short story by Karen Blixen. It is set around 1905 in Vanessa’s country house in an unspecified northern country. Vanessa has been awaiting the return of her lover, Anatol, for the last 20 years and covered up all the mirrors in the house until his expected return. Anatol finally arrives, but it is the son of Vanessa’s former lover. He proves something of a philanderer, seducing both Vanessa and her niece, Erika. He proposes marriage to Erika who declines and then switches his attentions to Vanessa. When he and Vanessa announce their official engagement, Erika vanishes into the snow with the express intention of aborting Anatol’s unborn child. At the end of the opera, Vanessa and Anatol prepare to depart for a new life in Paris while Erika takes her aunt’s place in the house, stoically waiting for her one true love. There are allusions to incest in the opera although the precise nature of these relationships is never made clear.
Menotti’s central point is that we tend to idealise the people we love while the reality is often quite different. (One wonders if this was an issue in the relationship between Barber and Menotti.) The two women in the opera need to decide whether to fight for their ideals to the point of shutting themselves off from reality or to compromise with what life has to offer. The Baroness encourages both women to go with the latter and when they do not she refuses to speak to them.
Keith Warner’s production uses minimal props and it is difficult to ascribe a precise time of place to the events, although it is certainly later than 1905. Giant mirrors provide a backdrop throughout and these sometimes act as windows into other rooms in the mansion or as film screens which depict seismic events in the lives of the two women such as a baby being born or a sexual encounter with Anatol. An underlying Freudian psychodrama is effectively explored through the medium of film noir while a gloomy Chekhovian aura pervades the drama.
All the singers were on top form and Emma Bell and Virginie Verrez both excelled in the roles of Vanessa and Erika. Bell produced lustrous top notes against a swelling orchestral backdrop and she embodied the obsessive, deluded Vanessa to perfection. Verrez brought enormous warmth and lyricism to the early scenes and searing dramatic power as the opera progressed. Her performance was hugely varied and finely calibrated making us feel empathy for Erika’s complex character. I would have welcomed greater vocal heft from Edgaras Montvidas in the early scenes but his Act I duet with Verrez was a triumph. He portrayed Anatol as a superficial charmer with a cynical glint in his eye. Donny Ray Albert gave a wonderfully assured performance as the old doctor while Rosalind Plowright captured the inflexible, unbending character of the old Baroness.
Jakub Hrůša and the London Philharmonic did a brilliant job with Barber’s score. The surges and swells of the first act and the intervening lyrical episodes were beautifully played. In Act II Barber’s quirky, inventive woodwind writing was played with delightful enthusiasm while the sequence of dances in the ballroom scene brought enchantment with a barbed edge. The final quintet in Act III was glorious as the canonic entries built in a rapturous way before the music died away.
Overall, this is an absolutely superb production of an unjustly neglected masterpiece – go and see it.
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