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<em>Vanessa</em>: Glyndebourne Festival Opera
07 Aug 2018

Vanessa: Keith Warner's Glyndebourne production exposes truths and tragedies

“His child! It must not be born!” Keith Warner’s new production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa for Glyndebourne Festival Opera makes two births, one intimated, the other aborted, the driving force of the tragedy which consumes two women, Vanessa and her niece Erika, rivals for the same young man, Anatol, son of Vanessa’s former lover.

Vanessa: Glyndebourne Festival Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Erika (Virginie Verrez)

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

 

It’s taken sixty years for Vanessa to receive a fully staged performance in the UK, though the opera was presented with reduced forces at the Royal Northern College of Music in 2011 and the Lyric Hammersmith in 1999, as well as in concert performance at the Barbican in 2003. Recently, Vanessa has been a more regular visitor to the world’s opera houses, notably at Santa Fe Santa Fe and Wexford (both in 2016). Warner’s Glyndebourne production communicates a strikingly compelling commitment to and belief in the opera, offering considerable compensation for the long delay. The opera is replete with ghosts and gaps which seem designed to deny us full understanding. Ambiguity and inscrutability can possess their own power, but Warner seeks to illuminate the hidden and the unclear, to bring the secrets into the half-light, constructing a historical and psychological narrative while retaining the opera’s elusiveness, and the result is dramatically persuasive and powerful.

During the troubled, agonised strains of the orchestral introduction, Emma Bell’s Vanessa stands centre-stage, in obvious distress, the flaming intensity of the score communicating Vanessa’s psychological fragmentation and anguish. Through a glass window, a woman is glimpsed, giving birth. Vanessa’s first words are, “No I cannot understand why he has not arrived yet.” She is speaking of Anatol, her long-lost lover, whose return she anticipates with restless excitement. The handsome man who actually arrives is Anatol’s son, who shares his late father’s name. Is this ‘imposter’ Vanessa’s son? Is that why the aged Baroness refuses to speak to her daughter? Given that Vanessa, after her initial dismay, accepts the younger Anatol as a substitute for her former love, Warner’s insinuation ties the knots which bind past and present even more tightly, and tragically. And, perhaps it is telling, as Warner suggested in a recent interview, that the book which Vanessa snatches from Erika whom she accuses of lack of passion, “You do not know how to read. You have never known what love is”, is a copy of Oedipus.

Past and present are brilliantly fused by Ashley Martin-Davis’s designs and Mark Jonathan’s lighting. Gian Carlo Menotti drew one of the central symbols of the libretto from one of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, ‘The Roads Round Pisa’, in which the narrator explains, “When I was a student my friends used to laugh at me because I was in the habit of looking at myself in the looking glasses, and had my own rooms decorated with mirrors. They attributed this to personal vanity. But it was not really so. I looked into the glasses to see what I was like. A glass tells you the truth about yourself.” The mirrors in Vanessa’s mansion have been shrouded for twenty years, stopping the clock and thereby avoiding confrontation with the illusion-shattering effects of time. As she tells Anatol, “I have scarcely breathed so that life should not leave its trace and that nothing might change in me that you loved.”

Glyndebourne Vanessa TK.jpg Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Warner and Martin-Davis uncover the mirrors: huge flickering repositories framed in antique silver which line the stage and are swivelled, with sleight of hand, across it. The glass is hazily transparent and reflectively silvered. As Jonathan flecks the monochrome palette, dramatized by chiaroscuro, with sepia and blue tints, reflections of the opera’s characters merge with ghosts of the past glimpsed through the deceiving glassy surfaces, in a surreal dance of time which conjures unsettling and unanswerable questions about history and identity. There’s an immersive, cinematic fluidity to the movement on stage (Movement Director, Michael Barry), and it’s intensified further by the use of cinematic projections (Projection Designer, Alex Uragallo) - soft-focused portraits, gothic forests - which draw us into other times and worlds. And, the film noir visual style is complemented by the expressionist qualities of Vanessa’s most impassioned vocal hysteria and Warner’s judicious use of stylised gesture.

Anatol and Vanessa.jpgVanessa (Emma Bell) and Anatol (Edgaras Montvidas). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Warner has, too, an excellent eye for a telling detail that can make its mark with understated pertinence. As Donnie Ray Albert’s warm-voiced and big-hearted Old Doctor sits alone on a chaise longue, sadly reflecting on Vanessa and Anatol’s imminent departure to Paris and on the loss of Erika’s child, he fingers his silver pocket-watch, “Vanessa was once a child too”, before slipping it into the travelling trunk beside him. Vanessa has sought to run from time, to fiercely grip the past, but it cannot be evaded. Indeed, Anatol, in a characteristically theatrical plea, urges her to leave the house and follow him into the future: “Love has a bitter core. Let your love be new as were we born today.” The Doctor’s gesture serves to make Vanessa’s wedding gift to Anatol even more poignant. Initially Anatol refuses to remove the present from the marquetry box which houses it, and the gift remains unidentified until the closing scenes when a servant appears, bearing a valise, from which Anatol removes the box and then, slowly, the gift, placing a gleaming gold watch on his left wrist.

The Old Doctor can appear a Chekhovian figure of fun - a family friend who has a warm heart who is gently ridiculed for his buffoonery. And, Donnie Ray Albert’s drunken yearnings for the fulfilment of his poetic leanings do offer a welcome respite from the relentless anxieties; moreover, he is ably complemented by William Thomas’s flamboyant Nicholas, the Major-Domo who kneels to clutch and stroke the ball guests’ fur coats, lamenting extravagantly that this is the closest he will come to such women.

Chorus and VV.jpgErika (Virginie Verrez) and Glyndebourne Chorus. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

But, Warner adds layers and dimensions to the characterisation, drawing on hints in the text, and allied with Ray Albert’s sumptuously engaging bass-baritone wins our sympathy for the man who, so Warner infers, has carried out the abortion on Erika’s child. Before Erika, crazed by her pregnancy and the announcement of the marriage to be, dashes into the cold darkness and is engulfed by the cinematic forest, the Doctor is seen at the side of the stage; is he beckoning her? As she staggers recklessly onwards, the filmic focus sharpens then retreats, unsettlingly; her destination seems to be a small hut in the heart of the wood, but before she can enter, the closing mirrors have shut out the chink of light and the vision vanishes. Personal pain and regret are thus redolent in the Doctor’s reflection that though he has delivered many children, the lost ones can never be replaced.

One might accuse Warner of filling in too many of the opera’s silences which are integral to the ‘meaning’, and there are occasional visual commentaries which might be thought to go a step too far towards elucidation. But, in fact, in the early versions of the opera, Erika’s decision to abort Anatol’s child was both less ambiguous and more prominent in the score. In ‘His Child … Must Not Be Born: Revising Erika in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa [1] , Stephanie Poxon scrutinises the sketches and versions of the piano and vocal scores, the composer’s holograph manuscript, and the 1964 revised score, and shows how what was an emphatic statement in the creators’ original plans was gradually diminished in specificity and dramatic impact, as Erika’s attempt to force a miscarriage by running into the snow was altered to attempted suicide, and ‘His child must not be born’ was modified, first to ‘shall not’, and finally to simply ‘His child …’. Similarly, the extended, melodically wide-ranging, syncopated chromaticism of Erika’s first statement of the phrase was simplified and shortened, ‘almost spoken’.

Menotti, as a script-writer, would have been familiar with the suffocating censorship of Hays Production Code, which stringently forbade any reference to the subject of abortion in films, and although opera was outside the Code’s jurisdiction, reviews of the first performance did criticise this aspect of the opera, though taking care to avoid the word ‘abortion’. Indeed, composer Robert Evett, writing in New Republic on 27 th January 1958), restricted himself to the observation that, ‘in the course of the opera, an unmarried party gets pregnant and a lot of unpleasant things happen’. Barber scholar Barbara Heyman’s suggestion that the revisions were made to encourage more regular performances of the opera seems feasible. [2]

Warner’s centralising of these issues - Anatol’s possible parentage, Erika’s abortion - serves to clarify what previously had remained uncertain, but it also foregrounds Erika’s confused identification with Vanessa, no more so than when she tell her grandmother that the child will not be born and is met with rejection and silence of the kind Vanessa has suffered from the Baroness for twenty years.

Virginie Verrez and Emma Bell.jpgErika (Virginie Verrez) and Vanessa (Emma Bell). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

The cast are tremendous, and their performances make Warner’s concepts utterly persuasive. Emma Bell is a painfully fragile Vanessa who veers between elated rapture, soaring gleamingly at the peaks, and agitated restlessness. Like Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, Vanessa is feverish from the first and Bell uses the florid ornamentation and chromatic disruption of the vocal line to convey her impetuousness and her anguish. Her distress at her lack of understanding of her niece’s torment, and the gentle delivery of her avowal upon departure, “I love you Erika. I have always loved you.”, win some sympathy for Vanessa, but it is Erika whose plight is most tragic, and Virginie Verrez skilfully exploits the comparative lyrical simplicity of Erika’s melodies to allow us into the young girl’s heart and mind.

The first we see of Anatol is an iconic silhouette, leaning louchely against the mirror frame-wall and lighting a cigarette. Edgaras Montvidas’ beautiful tenor conveys every ounce of the manipulator’s charm and poise, and while Montvidas acts skilfully to ensure that we appreciate both Anatol’s essential weakness and his self-serving Machiavellianism, it’s easy to understand why both women are so immediately and comprehensively deceived and seduced. Moreover, the tenor effectively portrays Anatol’s flights into theatrical hyperbole - occasions for some of Menotti’s most fancifully self-indulgent poeticism - as in the Act 3 duet between the two lovers in which both Bell and Montvidas venture into rhapsodic unreality. Rosalind Plowright’s Old Baroness is a terrifying portrait of moral rectitude; though physically frail, the Baroness is a commanding presence, her silence both the judge and the punishment.

Rosalind Plowright.jpgThe Old Baroness (Rosalind Plowright). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Conductor Jakub Hrůša led a searing reading of the score. The wonderfully impassioned and accomplished playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra conveyed Barber’s unwavering intensity but Hrůša ensured that we were not overwhelmed by the music’s emotional excess, allowing for moments of lucidity amid the high-wire hysteria which increasingly dominates.

Menotti described Vanessa as a story of ‘two women ... caught in the central dilemma which faces every human being, whether to fight for one’s ideals to the point of shutting oneself off from reality, or to compromise with what life has to offer, even lying to oneself for the mere sake of living’. At the close, after all the secrets and lies, illusions and evasions, the lament for the five principals offers a choric statement of truth, expressing pathos at the futility of the characters’ delusions: “Erika, Erika, only to kiss the imposter!” Erika orders the mirrors to be masked once more, but though the grey curtains drape heavily, the reflections are not extinguished. As Verrez’s Erika makes a slow dignified progress across the stage, a figure trails her in the glass - her own reflection, or the ghost of Vanessa twenty years before? Warner seems to be suggesting that one can never erase the truths of time that reside in the soul.

Claire Seymour

Barber: Vanessa

Vanessa - Emma Bell, Erika - Virginie Verrez, Anatol - Edgaras Montvidas, The Old Baroness - Rosalind Plowright, The Old Doctor - Donnie Ray Albert, Nicholas, the Major-Domo - William Thomas, Footman - Romanas Kudriašovas; Director - Keith Warner, Conductor - Jakub Hrůša, Designer - Ashley Martin-Davis, Lighting Designer - Mark Jonathan, Movement Director - Michael Barry, Projection Designer - Alex Uragallo, London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Glyndebourne Chorus.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera; Sunday 5th August 2018.


[1] Opera Journal , December 2005, Vol.38(4), pp.3-32.

[2] In Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music (OUP, 1992).

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