Public perception is about as unpredictable as the Irish weather and at times just as vexing. Samuel Barber's Vanessa was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958. Despite initial success, it fell quickly out of favour on account of its lush, latent neo-romanticism and for being considered sufficiently un-American. Last night’s performance revealed it for what it is: an enthralling, psychological opera with a score of sumptuous, passionate lyricism.

Michael Brandenburg (Anatol) and Claire Rutter (Vanessa) © Clive Barda
Michael Brandenburg (Anatol) and Claire Rutter (Vanessa)
© Clive Barda

The libretto was written by Barber’s partner Gian Carlo Menotti. The story is set in “a northern country in 1905” and beneath the veneer of this elegant society there unfolds a world of secrets, lies and manipulation. The opera opens with Vanessa waiting in her ancestral home for the return of Anatol, her lover from 20 years ago. Her only companions are her dreamy niece, Erika, and her silent mother, the Baroness. The latter refuses to speak to her daughter or to anyone whom she considers to be living a lie. An identity confusion reveals that Vanessa’s lover is dead but he is replaced by his son, also called Anatol. He is a handsome charmer and within quick succession has seduced Erika and got himself engaged to the wealthy Vanessa. As Vanessa and Anatol leave for Paris, Erika is left to live alone with her silent grandmother. The opera has come full circle.

Rodula Gaitanou presented us with a gripping production where the inner psychological drama of Vanessa and Erika and their deep-seated traumas were explored and ably developed. This inner turmoil was given some much-needed comic relief at times in the form of the family doctor. The sets and costume design by Cordelia Chisholm were both tremendously stylish and sumptuous. A frosted-panelled patio door was used to great symbolic effect at various times in the opera where the blurred silhouette of the characters suggested how difficult it was to fully comprehend their complex inner lives. These patio doors opened up to reveal an incredibly realistic snowy pine forest in the background with large snowflakes falling softly throughout, while for Act II, a stairs to the right opened up on to a gallant ballroom scene, the walls bedecked with portraits of Vanessa.

Carolyn Sproule (Erika) and Michael Brandenburg (Anatol) © Clive Barda
Carolyn Sproule (Erika) and Michael Brandenburg (Anatol)
© Clive Barda

There was much to enjoy from all five soloists, but it was mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule as Erika who stole the show. Possessing a mellifluous voice, Sproule transported us to a higher realm with her wisps of pianissimo hovering in the air while her tortured exclamations of Act II, as she learns that Anatol is engaged to Vanessa, cut us to the quick. It was her characterization that was so impressive. Sproule delved into the very soul of Erika, showing a convincing transition between the dreamy idealism of the start to the insightful, if thwarted, sexual realism as the opera progresses.

Claire Rutter as the eponymous heroine displayed a fiery spinto that was capable of keeping its power and tone quality throughout the evening. Her passionate declaration to whom she believes is her returned lover in Act I made a deep impression culminating in the powerfully dramatic moment “Do you still love me?” As Vanessa’s flits between flirtatious happiness with Anatol and her wondering what is up with her niece, Rutter alternated between the two states with great aplomb.

Rosalind Plowright (The Old Baroness) © Clive Barda
Rosalind Plowright (The Old Baroness)
© Clive Barda
The rest of the cast was no less impressive. Michael Brandenburg as the dashing Anatol grew in strength and confidence as the opera progressed, his duet with Vanessa at the end of Act II “follow my flight” was spine-tingling. Rosalind Plowright as the Baroness has very little to sing but her silent painting and penetrating stares spoke volumes. Much credit goes to James Westman for making his part such a scene-stealer as the Doctor. His inebriated behaviour of Act II elicited much laughter from the audience as did his dance instruction to Anatol in Act I. The five soloists did a fine job of the quintet at the end of Act III, each one adding their own distinctive touch to create something of outstanding beauty.

Conductor Timothy Myers approached the passionate lyricism of the music in an intelligent and engaging fashion eliciting an intense, visceral response from the Orchestra of the WFO. If the intonation of the strings and brass wavered at times and the balance with singers was not always perfectly attained (as at the end of Act I with the off-stage singing of hymns) these limitations were swept away by many moments of great beauty. The final cello and flute solo was played with extraordinary delicacy while the opening of Act II scene 2 throbbed with emotion. It was a terrific, compelling performance of an opera that needs to be heard much more frequently this side of the Atlantic.