The sell-out crowd at the world premiere of Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Opernhaus Zürich was a kind of milestone. Not just because the audience was, for the first time in months, primarily unmasked, but also because this was an intimate experience with the stirring pulse of new opera. The young Swiss composer Stefan Wirth had been commissioned by the Zurich house to fashion a work of musical theatre from author Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling eponymous novel, and was able to do so with original insights and aplomb. His libretto was supported by a stellar cast of characters, two American singers in the leads: the petite lyric soprano Lauren Snouffer as the pivotal character, Griet, and the superb baritone Thomas Hampson as the sublime Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer. Ted Huffman, who staged Zurich’s Madama Butterfly in 2017, directed.

Thomas Hampson (Jan Vermeer) and Lauren Snouffer (Griet)
© Toni Suter

Sadly, Andrew Lieberman’s set was as bare, for me, as it was banal. A curved flank of some ten seamlessly-connected, vertical light panels, all fitted into a high wall, rotated endlessly around the action, alternately showing a dark face and its various illuminations, but was omnipresent throughout the production. Any props were as sparse as a snowstorm in June, and while the moving panels served to separate the scenes, the Modernist impulse did little to support what was emotive on stage. It was a contrast at best, but the endless circles around the singers were almost dizzying, drawing attention away from the drama in the name of theatrical gadgetry.

Lauren Snouffer (Griet) and Thomas Hampson (Vermeer)
© Toni Suter

All the more credit is therefore due to the cast who convincingly drew Wirth's opera together. Snouffer and Hampson gave polished, highly convincing performances. Snouffer’s demanding solos filled the hall, but her voice also stirred compassion for the young maid in a fix, a woman employed by a married man who’s awfully keen to please her. Snouffer also demonstrated a mastery of her soprano that was as inviting as it was well-tempered, as colourful as it was secure. Likewise, Hampson‘s solid and resonant baritone lent majesty, colour and substance to a role that, by definition, is somewhat removed and solitary. It was hard to believe, in fact, that Hampson was acting, so convincing was he in the role of an artist at ease with his gift.

Lauren Snouffer (Griet) and Laura Aikin (Catharina Vermeer)
© Toni Suter

As Catharina Vermeer, the painter’s wife and mother of his many children, the indomitable Laura Aikin found, and masterfully projected, the role of a woman balanced between a rock and a hard place (so many children, an elderly mother in tow, a husband tempted), and made those burdens truly palpable. She easily carried the mainstay of the stage presence, and modulated her voice in such a way as ranged from the exuberant to the desolate, the inquisitive to the demonstrative. In a lesser role, Yannick Debus convincingly sang Pieter, Griet’s local admirer, the cunning – while still somewhat awkward – young man who proves that persistence always wins in the end. In other words, he gets the girl.

Lauren Snouffer (Griet), Lisa Tatin and children of the Zurich Opera
© Toni Suter

From the pit, conductor Peter Rundel kept a tight hold on a configuration of some 100 fine musicians, all of whom embraced the modern genre like a second skin. The music was a challenge to some ears, but it underscored the libretto with an agitated vein that couldn’t have been more fitting. The jealousy of Vermeer’s wife was omnipresent; the woodwinds convincingly accentuating the tension of her suspicions. Whenever Vermeer’s daughters graced the stage with their lithe movements and curious gestures, Wirth's score just revelled in their innocence. The eldest of the girls, Lisa Tatin, also gifted the audience with singing of her own, her voice coming across as startlingly fresh. Annemarie Woods’ marvellous, but understated, costumes lent great light, grace and variety to Lieberman’s otherwise barren, if modern stage.