wed 17/04/2024

Vanessa, Glyndebourne review - blowsy histrionics and a great finale | reviews, news & interviews

Vanessa, Glyndebourne review - blowsy histrionics and a great finale

Vanessa, Glyndebourne review - blowsy histrionics and a great finale

Does the end justify Barber's screamy little mystery, even when as well done as this?

Virginie Verrez as Erika and Emma Bell as Vanessa - niece and aunt?All images by Bill Knight

"Sounds like an opera by Handel," said a friend when I told him that I was going to see Vanessa at Glyndebourne.

Possible – the name first appeared in print as "invented" by Jonathan Swift in 1723 – had Handel not stuck to mythological and Biblical subjects, The title in fact has an incantatory ring in an overheated piece of hokum concocted by Samuel Barber and his long-term partner Gian Carlo Menotti for the Met in 1958. Glyndebourne often felt too small a space for its blowsy histrionics, but conductor Jakub Hrůša, director Keith Warner and a splendid team of singers did it proud. I won't need to see it again.

Much ink has been spilled over how Vanessa has suffered relative neglect because it came to light in a world, or at least a Europe, dominated by the Darmstadt-school avant-garde; its time has come, many say. But true tonally-based masterpieces of the 1950s – Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Britten's Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw, Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage and Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites – have made their own way. Vanessa's real problem is that it starts at screaming pitch, both in the orchestra – those shrieking high woodwind – and the female voices, leaving the music-drama few places to go and our sympathy for the Gothic ladies untouched. Yes, it has one of the most mesmerising finales in opera, a canon-quintet which gives a wider context at last, and a couple of effective set-pieces along the way, but its substance feels ersatz, contrived; was it a work the composer had to write? Even this excellent production and the commitment of the performers didn't convince me so. Scene from Glyndebourne VanessaMiddle-aged beauty Vanessa lives in a mansion somewhere in Northern Europe circa 1905 – Warner takes it back to America and updates to the time of the opera's composition – where she has dimmed the lights and covered the mirrors waiting for the return of the lover she last saw 20 years ago. In a neat little homage to Strauss's Arabella, it's his son of the same name who returns – or is it? He seduces her presumed niece on his first night as guest; the odd and sometimes compelling drama unfolds from that Liebesnacht. (Pictured above: Edgaras Montvidas as Anatol and Emma Bell as Vanessa)

Warner has the clever idea of going against the mirror-covering and making this a drama of nothing but reflections. Ashley Martin-Davis's spare but haunting designs with their limited colour-palette work superbly – they would have given Stefan Herheim's ice-cold Glyndebourne production of Pelléas et Mélisande a better context than the organ-room facsimile we got there – and there's a further dimension in Alex Uragallo's black-and-white projections, moving in and out of focus. These also justify the 1950s setting; though Hitchcock mostly exploited technicolor in that decade, the thriller aspect is well observed. All the more pity, then, that Barber doesn't rise to the memorability of Bernard Herrmann's Hitchcock scores until the final scene (when Vertigo comes to mind). Party scene from VanessaEmma Bell and Virginie Verrez complement each other superbly as the two leading ladies, Bell's compellingly cloudy tone with its brilliant upper reaches is right for the older woman, Verrez sharing her intensity as the dramatic screw turns in the evening's second half. Edgaras Montvidas brings the original creator of the role of Anatol, Nicolai Gedda, to mind in the briefly memorable duet with Vanessa in Act II (though even this is defused by one of Menotti's typically overblown lines, "like the burning phoenix you flew out of the ashes of my shattered dreams"). The charmer remains a cipher, which is no doubt the point. Rosalind Plowright makes her presence felt in the vocally unrewarding role of the Old Baroness, Vanessa's mother, who sings only to those who connect to life. Donnie Ray Albert makes what he can of the Old Doctor, introduced a little too self-consciously for semi-comic relief.

No-one could make a better argument for the score than the magnificent and ever-collegial Hrůša; a focused London Philharmonic Orchestra burns for him and Glyndebourne is lucky to welcome back its former regular who has now shaped up as one of the world's great conductors. That he considered the score worth his time speaks well for it. The quirky woodwind solos and the weirdness of the forest music, the little patches of Puccinian lyricism and, of course, that final quintet are memorable and even ear-wormy. The party scene (pictured above) has its nightmarish quirks (though Blitzstein's in Regina, a more deserving opera adapted from Lilian Hellman's The Little Foxes, is better still). Too much, though, is crashing cymbals and overwrought screams, and do we care about any of the characters? Vanessa is no great beauty, and one hopes that next time Glyndebourne fills its rarity spot with something on a higher level.

The opera's real problem is that it starts at screaming pitch, leaving the music-drama few places to go


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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