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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Vanessa, Op. 32 (1956-7)
Emma Bell (Vanessa)
Virginie Verrez (Erika)
Edgaras Montvidas (Anatol)
Rosalind Plowright (The Old Baroness)
Donnie Ray Albert (The Old Doctor)
Romanas Kudriašovas (Footman)
William Thomas (Nicholas the Major-Domo)
The Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša
Keith Warner (director), François Roussillon (film director)
Sung in English with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.
rec. live, 14 August 2018, Glyndebourne, England
DVD Region 0. Notes and extra features included.
OPUS ARTE OA1289D [140 mins]

Samuel Barber began writing songs at the age of ten, and continued to write vocal works to the end of his life. He had a fine baritone voice and even contemplated becoming a singer. But he was in his mid-forties before he began his first opera, after looking for an appropriate libretto for almost a decade. In 1956, he finally began to compose Vanessa to a libretto by his long-time partner Gian Carlo Menotti. The work was very well received on its premiere in 1957. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and was seen by a number of people at the time as the future of American opera. However, it never really established itself in the repertoire even if it contains some of Barber’s most advanced and dramatic music.

Originally Vanessa was in four acts but Barber and Menotti conflated the first two acts, excising an aria for Vanessa. In this live Glyndebourne version, there is only one intermission, between Acts II and III but the synopsis of the opera in the accompanying material and the division of tracks on the DVD itself have three acts, so we follow Barber and Menotti.

The opera opens in 1905, “in a Northern country”, but this production has been updated seamlessly to the 1950s. Vanessa, along with her niece Erika and her mother, the Old Baroness, await the arrival of Anatol, a man for whom Vanessa has waited for over twenty years. But the man who arrives is Anatol’s son, also named Anatol. After Erika helps the shocked Vanessa from the room, she berates Anatol for the deception but allows him to stay until tomorrow. The scene ends with them having dinner. The second part of Act I takes place a month later. Erika confesses to her grandmother that she slept with Anatol on the night of his arrival, and that she loves him. He has proposed to her but Erika is not sure he is capable of real love. Vanessa, Anatol, and the Old Doctor enter. Vanessa tells Erika she is in love with Anatol. When Erika later confronts Anatol he again offers marriage, but she again refuses.

In Act II, Vanessa and Anatol throw a great New Year’s Eve ball to announce their engagement. The Old Doctor is supposed to make the announcement but is tipsy and has trouble rehearsing his speech. Vanessa is upset because neither Erika nor the Old Baroness is coming to the ball. Erika eventually comes downstairs but, on hearing the actual announcement, runs out into the snow, crying that Anatol’s child, which she is carrying, will not be born.

Act III is in two scenes. In the first, Erika has been rescued and Vanessa questions Anatol as to Erika’s actions but his replies are evasive. Erika explains her pregnancy and her near-death to her grandmother, who – upon realizing that the unborn child is dead – refuses to speak to Erika, as she had refused to speak to Vanessa. The second scene takes place two weeks later as Vanessa and Anatol, now married, prepare to move to Paris. The Old Doctor sings a moving aria of regret for the past. Vanessa is still worried about Erika’s actions and asks her if she is in love with Anatol. Erika replies that she was in love, but not with Anatol. The characters sing a quintet (“To leave, to break”) contemplating love, self-deception and the future – in some ways the fulcrum of the opera. Vanessa, Anatol and the Old Doctor leave. Erika, alone with the Old Baroness, who still will not talk to her, orders the servants to restore the house to the closed and shuttered way it was at the start of the opera. Now it is she who will wait.

Vanessa is an opera whose characters are isolated from one another by their own self-delusions. Director Keith Warner brings this out quite strongly, both in terms of the presentation of the characters and in the staging and action. He makes a dark opera even darker by adding elements derived from film noir and the “women’s pictures” Hollywood produced around the time the opera was written. These aspects are well-presented in the DVD’s supplementary material by Warner and David Benedict.

Of the singers, Emma Bell is in fine voice as the title character, but even better is the deftness of her characterization – so self-centered as to miss most of the drama happening around her – especially in “Erika, I am so happy” in Act I and later in Act III’s “Why must the greatest sorrows”. Edgardas Montvidas is appropriately louche as Anatol. He is vocally excellent, although I felt that he did not elicit even the small amount of sympathy Menotti allotted to him. The notable exception is the scene where Erika is found near the lake and Anatol’s better side asserts itself, perhaps. In some ways Vanessa could be called Erika, at least in terms of the action. Virginie Verrez keeps one’s attention on her throughout. While her voice is sometimes a little rough, she sings beautifully “Why must the winter come so soon”, and her final scene with Bell.

Menotti’s libretto contrasts the three younger characters with two old ones, neither of whom have names: the Old Baroness and the Old Doctor. But the two are also contrasted with each other. As the stern and unrelenting Old Baroness, Rosalind Plowright is more effective dramatically than vocally but her scenes with Virginie Verrez are near-perfect. The Old Doctor is somewhat befuddled but his emotions of nostalgia and regret make him the most sympathetic of all the characters. Donnie Ray Albert fills this role with great distinction. In Act I, he is appropriately stiff and occasionally overdoes the drunkenness in the ball scene. But from then he brings a real sense of regret to his role, especially in “For every love there is a last farewell”.

Jakub Hrůša leads the London Philharmonic in a very idiomatic performance. He emphasizes the frequently overlooked ominousness in the music, and brings a metallic sheen to the orchestra that combines well with Warner’s overall conception. Of special note is his handling of the ensemble sections, especially the intensity he brings to the characters’ final leave-taking in Act III.

Vanessa has been well-served on CD. There is the revered original cast recording from 1957 (part of an 8-CD set - review), and the Vienna Opera version with practically the same cast. Both Gil Rose (review) and Leonard Slatkin have produced worthy versions in the CD age. This Glyndebourne production, as mentioned, is the first DVD of the opera, but its combination of singing, orchestral playing, and overall conception will make it a necessity for all fans of the opera.

William Kreindler



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