When Samuel Barber’s Vanessa premiered in New York in 1958 it was the first new American work to appear at the Metropolitan Opera in eleven years, and only the twentieth since the house was opened in 1883. It was enthusiastically received, but fared less well at the Salzburg Festival later that year when critics possibly showed a bias against any work that came from ‘outside’.
Vanessa soon fell out of the repertoire as its lush, melodic lines and harking back to Romanticism felt old-fashioned in comparison to the serialism that was the order of the day. In an era, however, where we are more inclined to be open to a wider variety of styles, and to appreciate the freshness that Barber was bringing to Romanticism, the opera is starting to be rediscovered. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa took the title role in productions for Opera de Monte-Carlo in 2001, Washington National Opera in 2002 and Los Angeles Opera in 2004, and Wexford Festival Opera produced the work in 2016. Nevertheless, Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s new production by Keith Warner still constitutes the piece’s first professional staging in the United Kingdom.
Warner knew the opera’s librettist, the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, and fell so much in love with the work that he has spent decades hoping to direct it. Set in a northern country (the opera never specifies which) in around 1905, it tells the story of Vanessa, who shares the house with her mother, The Old Baroness, and niece, Erika. Twenty years earlier she loved Anatol, but he left and she has spent the last two decades with the mirrors and portraits covered up, awaiting his return. Anatol has communicated that he will be coming to her, but when he arrives she is shocked to discover it is not the man she was expecting. As she turns her back on him, the man ends up explaining to Erika that he is the eponymous son of Vanessa’s erstwhile lover, and they end up sleeping together. Erika confides to The Old Baroness that she loves Anatol, but does not trust him, while Vanessa starts to warm to him. On seeing this, Erika makes a conscious decision not to pursue him, feeling he is not right for her and not wishing to impede her aunt’s happiness.
However, Erika finds it impossible to share in Vanessa and Anatol’s joy when they announce their engagement as she is pregnant with his child. She runs outside planning to plunge to her death in the icy lake, but she collapses in the cold before reaching it with the result that only her unborn child dies. Vanessa is mortified when Erika goes missing, and when Erika subsequently gives her excuses for why she behaved so irrationally, it is not clear if Vanessa, who never knew anything of the child, is successfully fobbed off or realises Erika’s own feelings for Anatol. Either way, she and Anatol have decided to move to Paris. They leave behind Erika, who orders the mirrors to be covered once more as if it is now her turn to wait, and The Old Baroness who, knowing what really happened, refuses to speak to her.
The physical plot, however, is only half of the story as the opera, in spite of its horrifying extremes (the death of Erika’s child is only marginally less unsettling than the one in Jenůfa) presents themes, situations and people to whom we can all relate. Although not to the same extent perhaps, we have all been left waiting and hoping at times, and projecting onto someone our own image of how they should be. In this way, possibly the most intriguing character is Anatol, precisely because we see the man both as the women would like him to be and how, deep down, they know he really is. In Erika’s case she recognises the reality clearly enough to proclaim that she wants his passion, but does not wish to control him because that is not the person he is. Indeed, her rejection of him derives from a conscious recognition that in the long-term he would be no good for her, and that it is therefore better to walk away (or give way to Vanessa). Anatol, however, is left feeling rejected, which suggests that he decides to marry Vanessa for reasons of security and stability, believing that his ability to charm has left him. In other words, Vanessa does not win Anatol but an emasculated shadow of his former self, making us wonder whether their life in Paris will be an altogether happy one.
Warner’s production emphasises the claustrophobic and noirish aspects of the story (the opera premiered in the same year as Hitchcock’s Vertigo), with Ashley Martin-Davis’ set sporting monochrome shades. It consists of a series of giant mirror frames, with their covers being signified by fluttering sheets created by Alex Uragallo’s projections. However, even when the mirrors are supposedly covered we glimpse faint reflections of the characters, showing how memories persist. This is because they combine real reflections of the protagonists in front of the mirrors with images of younger versions of the characters (played by actors) behind them.
In keeping with the action occurring in an unspecified northern country, the set seems reminiscent of one of Hammershøi’s interiors. However, in a scene in which the family goes to church, a projected backdrop of that building could have come straight from a Grant Wood painting. The sets and movement also complement the music well as the church scene sees choral singing with organ interspersed with music that could have come from a film noir and, in keeping with this, projected black and white images of lovers. In Act I there is a moment when Vanessa and Erika scream ‘yes’ and ‘no’ simultaneously as a part of their separate lines, while in Act II Vanessa declares that she wants the announcement of her engagement to be immediately followed by dancing. The music then sees the first few words of the proclamation lead straight into a dance, with Michael Barry’s choreography picking up on this as the guests instantly begin to swirl around.
It is only, however, when a remarkable rarity and first rate staging combine with excellent musical credentials that the evening becomes truly special. Here, Jakub Hrůša’s superb conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra complements two outstanding performances from the female leads. In both the case of Emma Bell’s Vanessa and Virginie Verrez’ Erika, the most impassioned and frequently anguished singing combine with an absolute sense of security in tone and technique. The pair are also strongly complemented by Edgaras Montvidas, who by puffing on a cigarette, even as his engagement is toasted, reveals Anatol’s callousness, Rosalind Plowright, who makes The Old Baroness a model of self-righteous piety, and Donnie Ray Albert, who creates an extremely endearing Old Doctor.
Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s Vanessa will be broadcast to selected cinemas across the UK and worldwide at 6.30pm on 14 August, and online at the same time, while some cinemas will present encore screenings over subsequent days. For further details visit the Glyndebourne Festival Opera website.