Barber’s Vanessa at Wexford

What makes Samuel Barber’s Vanessa such an engaging work? Not just the music which, though to some extent typical of the composer’s melodic, lush romantic style, is also hard-edged. Rather it is the strength of the libretto written by Gian Carlo Menotti, the long-term companion of Barber and, of course, an operatic composer himself. It is striking that Menotti’s concept and text are more subtle, more profound, than those which he wrote for his own music. Almost Pirandellian in approach, it focuses on the individual’s search for identity and hopeless pursuit of fulfilment through love. The world portrayed is a bleak one, with a hollowness in human relationships.

The Wexford presentation of the work was totally successful. The conductor Timothy Myers did not linger on the romantic phrasing; he pushed the orchestral accompaniment forward as if to show how ephemeral was human passion. Rodula Gaitanou’s staging caught exactly the right balance between ardour and cynicism and was attractively choreographed. Cordelia Chisholm’s setting reinforced the dramatic content, two pairs of sliding doors separating the inner world of introspection and isolation, a middle ground for superficial social interaction, and the frozen snow-swept external world.

All of the individual performances were well integrated into this overarching concept. In the title role, Claire Rutter offered a blowsy, tetchy middle-aged woman, vocally avoiding softness and sincerity. Michael Brandenburg’s tenor rose impressively to the climaxes but his demeanour betrayed his callousness. James Westman’s Doctor was a welcome link to “normal” joviality and human sympathy. Outstanding was Carolyn Sproule as Erika: while physically communicating her insecurity and vulnerability, her warm mezzo revealed that she was capable of, and yearned for, love. A final word of praise for veteran Rosalind Plowright’s magnificent portrayal of the grandmother Countess. Her every movement told a story of rancour and disillusionment.