Samuel Barber is best-known for his elegiac ‘Adagio for Strings’, the work of choice for so many poignant US state occasions. His Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, Vanessa, was a hit when it premiered at the Met, in 1958. Despite the initial enthusiasm, it languished in obscurity until a revival at New York City Opera, in 2007, prompted a renewal of interest.
In Wexford, a handsome and engaging production, by Greek director, Rodula Gaitanou, recalls the picturesque 1950s movie world of Gordon Douglas. An excellent cast is headed by soprano, Claire Rutter, who transitions from a fragile Miss Havisham character to a vivacious leading lady, in full Doris Day-mode.
Conductor, Timothy Myers, draws a full-bodied and nuanced performance of the lush, cinematic score. This technically-demanding score is reminiscent of the sensuous sound world of Bernard Hermann’s Hitchcock scores.
In the Chekhovian plot, three women sit around in a gloomy mansion, waiting for a gentleman caller from the past. A fretful Vanessa, her attentive niece, Erika (Carolyn Sproule), and Vanessa’s censorious mother, the Baroness, played by the eminent Rosalind Plowright. When he arrives, he is not the expected former lover of Vanessa, but his son. A charming cad, he wastes no time in seducing Erika and proceeds to woo Vanessa, with whom he eventually departs for Paris. A rueful Erika brings the plot full circle, by assuming Vanessa’s waiting role in the isolated mansion.
Set and costumes vividly evoke the glamour and elegance of 1950s fashion and interiors, amid a backdrop of a picture-postcard winter scene. If the opening production was one I was glad to have seen once, I would happily have watched this production again the next day.
The production also got a thumbs-up from Wexford grandee, John Julius Norwich. The writer and broadcaster, who has been a regular at the festival since 1961, proved to be a highly entertaining raconteur, dipping into his memories of former festivals and his diplomatic career. I dare say, without much encouragement, he would have sung a few songs himself. Maybe next year!