“Dysfunctional family in large isolated country house”, in the manner of Chekhov or Tennessee Williams, is not a style that’s often taken up by opera. So when, in 1958, Samuel Barber wrote his long-awaited first opera, Vanessa, the first American opera at the Met in over a decade, it might come a surprise that this was the genre he chose. But seeing it at Glyndebourne yesterday provoked a different form of astonishment: that such an opera, which was a huge success at its première, could have disappeared so comprehensively from the repertoire.

Virginie Verrez (Erika), Emma Bell (Vanessa) © Tristram Kenton
Virginie Verrez (Erika), Emma Bell (Vanessa)
© Tristram Kenton

In a baronial mansion “in cold, northern climes”, we meet three women from three generations: Vanessa, obsessed with her departed lover of twenty years ago, her fresh-faced and blooming niece Erika, and the Old Baroness, Vanessa’s mother, who refuses to speak to Vanessa for reasons hinted at but never stated explicitly. As the opera opens, the household is awash with expectation as it prepares for the return of Vanessa’s lover Anatol – but the young man who appears is a very different Anatol. As events unfold, the psychology of each of the principals is illuminated by a harsh glare and the atmosphere fairly crackles with sexual repression, the tension builds gradually through the first half and accelerates rapidly in the second.

Emma Bell (Vanessa), Edgaras Montvidas (Anatol) © Tristram Kenton
Emma Bell (Vanessa), Edgaras Montvidas (Anatol)
© Tristram Kenton

Jakub Hrůša led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a thrilling account of Barber’s score, which is über-romantic in a completely individual way. Strings soar, but in Barber’s style, not Puccini’s; oboes and cor anglais complain; cellos and basses growl; a battery of different percussion instruments add colour; tension is built and relaxed; humour is interjected at key moments of comic relief. Occasionally, the mood flirts dangerously with Hollywood film score, but most of all, one cannot help but be entranced by Barber’s vocal writing: his phrases fit each voice like a glove. The opera isn’t stuffed with memorable tunes – although two of them, Erika’s “Must the winter come so soon” and the closing quintet, “To leave, to break”, are outstanding – but the vocal lines are consistently of sublime beauty.

All three women showed impressive command of the stage and of the relationships between them. Virginie Verrez was outstanding as Erika, with a voice that was pure, confident and strong and a lovely sense of line. I believed utterly in her character as it morphed through sexual awakening to self-destructive obstinacy; her stage presence was magnetic to the point where one felt that the opera could easily have been entitled Erika, not Vanessa. Emma Bell didn’t quite match Verrez’s purity of voice, but did match her interpretation of her character, impressing with her ability to build tension. The Old Baroness is principally a silent watcher who doesn’t have much to sing, but some of her interventions come at crucial moments and Rosalind Plowright made the most of them: her retort to Erika that “he saw your money before he saw your eyes” was the most telling line of the evening.

Edgaras Montvidas was thoroughly credible as the caddish Anatol: amongst the overheard interval chatter was an “of course, we’ve all met men like that”. One might have wished for some more individuality and warmth in the voice, and Montvidas was at his best in the superb duet with Bell, “Love has a bitter core”, a brilliant expression of a lover listening without hearing. One of the delicious ironies of the opera is that at the critical moments when the women are desperate for Anatol to say that he will love them forever, he tells them nothing but the truth (albeit not the whole truth). Donnie Ray Albert was a sympathetic and smooth-voiced Doctor.

Virginie Verrez (Erika), Rosalind Plowright (The Old Baroness) © Tristram Kenton
Virginie Verrez (Erika), Rosalind Plowright (The Old Baroness)
© Tristram Kenton

Keith Warner has been wanting to stage Vanessa for decades, and perhaps he’s been preparing this production in his head for all that time, because the staging is a masterpiece. Ashley Martin-Davis’ sets are a magical concoction of mirrors, windows and picture frames which shift and swirl, blending with Alex Uragallo’s video projections to evoke the cold, northern landscape; the sheer size of the frames combines with a beautifully crafted spiral staircase and an army of servants to place us in no doubt as to the moneyed status of the protagonists. The three women are cast as classic Hitchcock blondes in the Tippi Hedren/Kim Novak mould, adding tension by association for any film buffs in the audience.

Act 4 outstays its welcome: there’s a brilliant moment which effectively ends the main action (and which some of the audience thought was the end of the opera), after which the process of tidying up loose ends takes rather too long. But the process includes that spellbinding quintet, which rang in our ears long after we departed into the warm glow of the Glyndebourne sunset.

Emma Bell (Vanessa), Edgaras Montvidas (Anatol) © Tristram Kenton
Emma Bell (Vanessa), Edgaras Montvidas (Anatol)
© Tristram Kenton
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