Haunting treat

Rating: 5


by Richard Bratby

In a remote country house somewhere in northern Europe, three women await an unknown guest. The old Baroness is bitter after a lifetime of lies. Vanessa, her daughter, has waited 20 years for the promised return of her old flame, Anatol; her only real companionship has been her young niece (‘but mostly her shadow’) Erika. But the Anatol who steps out of the winter night is a stranger: the adult son of Vanessa’s ex-lover. Who he is – and what he wants – may well prove less dangerous than the hopes, memories and long-suppressed desires of the women whose quiet lives he has just interrupted so irrevocably.

But enough of the spoilers: I won’t give anything more away, because Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is that rarest of things – an opera that isn’t based on an existing story. Barber and his librettist Gian Carlo Menotti said that they cribbed the general atmosphere from Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, but the story they spin from that claustrophobic world is wholly original. The result was one of postwar opera’s great near-misses. Premiered in new york in 1958 with designs by Cecil Beaton, Vanessa won a Pulitzer Prize, but when it transferred to the Salzburg Festival it was savaged by avant-garde European critics. This new Glyndebourne production directed by Keith Warner is effectively its UK premiere.

Warner has served Vanessa magnificently. His masterstroke is to realise that, although Barber’s sumptuous, bittersweet score frequently evokes Strauss, Puccini or Prokofiev, this is a drama from the age of Alfred Hitchcock. Huge gilt-framed mirrors slide around the stage, turning translucent to reveal the characters’ illusions and occasional heartbreaking truths. Video projections blur the edges and sheets of grey satin ripple in the background, echoing Vanessa’s faded evening gown (Erika, a young woman of the 1950s, wears a twinset). It’s surreal, but unquestionably beautiful: a psychological thriller in which reality (Anatol says up front that he can’t offer ‘eternal love’) is no match for dreams.

The tenor Edgaras Montvidas gets Anatol’s shallow charm down pat (and Anatol is very pat); but the show really belongs to the women. Rosalind Plowright is magnificently frosty as the Baroness, and both Emma Bell as Vanessa and Virginie Verrez as Erika are fearless. They soar radiantly over Barber’s turbulent orchestra (Jakub Hrůša, conducting, has Damask gloves on hands of polished steel), but Verrez injects a brittleness into the brilliance of her voice that perfectly embodies Erika’s increasingly fragile mental state. Bell, meanwhile, only gets more thrillingly luminous as Vanessa surrenders to her delusions – if that’s what they are. Vanessa is too grown-up an opera to tell you what to think. Instead, it makes the process of puzzling it out a haunting, gloriously sophisticated treat. u Until 26 August at Glyndebourne, Sussex: 01273- 815000, www.glyndebourne.com