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Vanessa review at Glyndebourne – ‘probing and spectacular’

Virginie Verrez and Emma Bell in Vanessa at Glyndebourne. Photo: Tristram Kenton Virginie Verrez and Emma Bell in Vanessa at Glyndebourne. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It is 60 years since Vanessa’s successful premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in New York, but this is the first professional staging of Samuel Barber’s opera in the UK.

Glyndebourne has given it every advantage with strong and imaginative casting and a production by Keith Warner that is both probing and visually spectacular.

In Ashley Martin-Davis’ monochrome designs, it has the glacial, artfully composed beauty of an Orson Welles movie.

When the opera opens, Vanessa, awaiting her long-lost lover, has veiled all the mirrors in her grand house. At its end, Erika, her niece – or, so Warner suggests, possibly her daughter – commands they be covered again.

The two huge, silver frames that dominate the decor are not just mirrors, they are also windows to the outside world (evoked in Alex Uragallo’s haunting projections), to other rooms in the house, or to the past, as the characters’ younger selves interact silently behind them.

This layering sheds light on the enigmas in the libretto by Barber’s partner, fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti, but Vanessa remains dramatically short-breathed, despite conductor Jakub Hrusa’s command of an often beautiful and atmospheric score.

The text juxtaposes portentous pronouncements with banality and the musical set pieces – such as Erika’s lovely aria and the richly woven quintet of farewell – too often seem detached from their context.

The singers do all they can to bring the characters to life. Emma Bell as Vanessa and Virginie Verrez as Erica, are both sweepingly opulent; Rosalind Plowright magisterial as the taciturn Old Baroness; Edgaras Montvidas a silver-tongued Christian Slater lookalike as Anatol, and Donnie Ray Albert an eloquent Old Doctor who offers both comic relief and pathos. The playing of the London Philharmonic is as refined as it is sumptuous.

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This first UK professional staging illuminates an often beautiful, but dramatically short-breathed opera