Monday 17 September 2018

Barber - Vanessa (Glyndebourne, 2018)

Samuel Barber - Vanessa

Glyndebourne, 2018

Jakub Hrůša, Keith Warner, Emma Bell, Virginie Verrez, Edgaras Montvidas, Rosalind Plowright, Donnie Ray Albert, William Thomas, Romanas Kudriašovas - 14 August 2018

On the surface, Samuel Barber's Vanessa is a simple domestic drama, but inevitably there's much more going on beneath the surface. Written in 1958, Alfred Hitchcock was going something similar with repressed passions around that same time in Vertigo, and Keith Warner has chosen to stage the Glyndebourne production of Vanessa as a Hitchcock-like drama of hidden passions leading to disintegrating minds, and it's not a bad idea, even if it does have the consequence of making an unashamedly old-fashioned work feel rather dated.

But is it really a dated work or, like Hitchcock, does it not actually address something that was more than a little daring for its time in its subject matter and perhaps even taboo? Certainly a more personal reading of the matter of hidden passions and dark unspoken secrets can be detected in the libretto of composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who wrote the original libretto for his lover Samuel Barber, and it can be felt in the dark melancholic tone of the music. Keith Warner's direction doesn't address that directly at all in the Glyndebourne production, but he does delve a little deeper in a way that brings the human element out of the somewhat mannered and stuffy setting.

The sets, the moral attitudes and the class issues in Vanessa are all very much of their time. Vanessa lives with her mother and niece in an isolated mansion in the north of the country. Abandoned 20 years ago by Anatol, Vanessa has remained in Miss Haversham-like seclusion, with all the mirrors of the house covered. She is however expecting Anatol's imminent return, but is shocked to find that it is not Anatol who arrives, but his son, also called Anatol. Unknown to Vanessa, Anatol and her niece Erika spend the night together, but Erika refuses to marry Anatol and he turns his attentions instead to Vanessa.

The drama and the romantic triangle situation becomes rather more heated when it is revealed that Erika is pregnant. Hearing the news of Vanessa's engagement to Anatol, she attempts to throw herself in the lake late on a dark and snowy New Year's Eve. While Barber's lushly romantic score underpins the drama, it doesn't however allow it to tip over into melodrama, since while the revelations are shocking to the audience, they remain mostly hidden, repressed and covered up by the characters in denial; Erika about her feelings for Anatol, Vanessa about her suspicions about Anatol's true nature.

With much going on beneath the surface as above it, Keith Warner's direction finds expression for the multiple levels by highlighting the use of mirrors. Mirrors are referred to explicitly in the libretto, Vanessa has covered them up for 20 years since Anatol's absence, and they are covered up again at the end of the opera, and the significance of covering up and hiding from oneself is obvious. Warner's use of large mirrors that dominate the stage in Act I take on another dimension however when they are uncovered, playing on what is real and what is a reflection.

This is extended in Act II, when more mirrors are added and doubles are used, sometimes showing guests behind the scenes, other times showing younger idealised versions of the protagonists. This is most effective in the scene where the doctor, who has drunk a lot at the party, sees a ghostly younger, more gallant and much more confident idealised version of himself asking a lady to dance, that contrasts with the reality of the older, drunken man. But these levels and contradictions between what is spoken and the reality are all there in the music.

Aside from the Hitchcock references (the period looks much older than Vertigo, going back to Notorious or Suspicion), there are other film influences and effects evident in Warner's production, from the use of mirrors distorting reality and stretching to infinity like Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai, to the use of projections and a twisting set that almost replicates Hitchcock's reverse-zoom effect at the dramatic moment of Erika hearing of Anatol and Vanessa's engagement from the top of the stairs. All of the effects are merited and echoes in the score.

The music for Vanessa is beautiful, the melodies and arias are lovely, and even if there is a little too much talky recitative - which Menotti and Barber tried to avoid not entirely successfully - it is always musically expressive. The dark and moody 'goodbyes' conclusion is just wonderful and all of it is marvellously sung by a good cast. Emma Bell's conflicted and troubled Vanessa could easily have been upstaged by her rather more impetuous dramatic niece Erika, but sung tremendously well by Virginie Verrez, but Bell's interiority suggests more. Edgaras Montvidas is excellent as Anatol, singing the role persuasively, never playing a blatant cad, but rather more subtle than that.

With an elegant and expressive set, excellent singing and dramatic performances, good direction that attempts to dig a little deeper, this is an excellent performance of an entertaining and superbly constructed opera. Unfortunately, despite Glyndebourne's insistence that the time has come for accessible 20th century American opera, Vanessa still feels unadventurous and stuffy. It's a trend that is also becoming increasingly evident at Glyndebourne, but alongside ambitious productions like Barrie Kosky's production of Saul, Claus Guth on La Clemenza di Tito and Brett Dean's Hamlet, at the moment there's still a good balance in the festival and room for testing out lesser known American works like Vanessa.

Links: Glyndebourne,