This week’s Glynedebourne Open House piece was Samuel Barber’s ‘Vanessa’. It is not easy to find a whole production of the piece, so enjoy the free streaming as you can. 20th century opera was dominated with Stockhausen and Boulez pieces, and Barber’s Vanessa didn’t get enough attention at Salzburg Festival for being similar to Richard Strauss. It didn’t see a success since than. Since today’s audience would appreciate any Strauss piece to Stockhausen - yes, I speculate-, you should definitely give it a try. Yesterday, I watched it for the first time and I fall in love with the piece immediately.
Vanessa, waits for her lover for twenty years. In that time, she lived in isolation with her mother who doesn’t speak to her and niece. She avoided the mirrors in a desperate attempt to stay young for her lover; Anatol. In the first scene, she waits her lover enthusiastically. She spokes to her lover for the first time in twenty years in ‘’Do not utter a word, Anatol’’ and it makes your heart break. Its very melodic and not at the same time; tension in the air but it is love somehow. It’s a modern love; sensual but complicated. Only to discover that he’s not her lover but his son, instead.
After her breakdown discovering her lover’s son instead of her lover, Anatol and Erika, Vanessa’s niece, comes closer. As they are about to go to a room, a sudden shift from time takes us to a moment of Erika’s confession of a passion to her grandmother. Erika is a modern girl. She knows her aunt loves his and he’s capable of love; she doesn’t let herself to be in love with him although she loves him from the very beginning. He propose but she refuses. Yet it’s not enough to be not sorrow.
The tension is balanced with subtle but sincere funny moments and beautiful dance music. When Anatol couldn’t get Erika, he tries his chance with Vanessa. He still plays two fields, but Erika is a strong character compared to vulnerable and hopeless Vanessa. When Anatol asks why she didn’t join them, she simply answers ‘because you forgot to ask me’.
Erika is clearly at the centre of the story since Anatol and Vanessa’s story mostly advances off stage. Doctor is a funny but not that much drunk at the announcement; you don’t suspect he will do anything major to advance the plot, but it lightens the mood. His word ‘baroness’ makes a music gets angry but only to resolve to a dance tune. The peak moment of the piece is when Erika comes down to dancing and says ‘his child’. Music suffers but her voice is not emotional; it’s like a recitative. She has emotions but also a determination. Music is also heartbroken but not emotional, it’s like melody can go any note; it goes up, than down, you don’t feel the difference just seconds before it resolves into a dance again. She loses her child in woods, Vanessa gets worried about her but never discovers the truth. Only grandmother shares the secret.
When Vanessa gets married to Anatol and about to leave for Paris, she tries to learn about that night once again, but Erika convince it was nothing. After they leave, it’s Erika’s turn to wait. Now her grandmother doesn’t speak with her also. She makes all mirrors covered and refuses visitors. Now, she’s Vanessa, only few years behind.
Keith Warner’s production is really astonishing with film noir inspiration. Simple but very effective staging with wonderful lighting makes you feel like you’re in a Hitchcock movie. There are lots of frames in the scenes that should be photographs. Every step, every pose is artistic. Most of the time, you can see other characters from giant glass frames. They are not shadowing the main characters but also contributes to story. One of these is the background story of Baroness and Doctor; implication of they were once lovers. Since the opening scene had a child birth at the background, make you wonder is Erika is actually their daughter or not. It really didn’t matter that much because you’re focus on the sufferings of these three woman. That’s why even at the end, after ‘goodbye’ canon, you know it’s the end, but you wait in the silence as the light dims.
Emma Bell and Virginie Verrez was wonderful at the performance. Also their resembles suggests to watch three stages of the same woman; Erika, Vanessa and Boroness. Glynedebourne Festival’s revival of Vanessa should be permanent. I hope other major opera houses makes a space for this 20th century masterpiece. Try it, you will not have to pretend anything, you will find yourself.