29 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 70

Fighting for one's ideals

Michael Tanner

Vanessa Barbican Pelleas et Mellsande Linbtay Studio

Samuel Barber's Vanessa has at last received a professional performance in the UK, with first-rate soloists. I have previously only seen it done by amateur forces with piano accompaniment, and the impression it made was dismal. It does, though, need staging, since it depends heavily on an atmosphere of cloistered gloom, and all we got at the Barbican were some ultra-discreet lighting changes. The soloists came and went, made a few gestures, but that was it. The libretto was fashioned by Menotti from a Gothic story by Isak Dinesen, but in the process not much seems to have been left of a subject-matter.

It is a cyclical work, at the end of which Vanessa's niece Erika, her aunt having gone off on an indefinitely prolonged honeymoon with the son of the man whom she (Vanessa) had been deserted by 20 years ago, sits just as Vanessa had done at the start of the opera, Miss Havisham-like, curtains drawn and mirrors covered, waiting for the return of someone she knows won't come back. Menotti described the opera as being concerned with the 'fight for one's ideals to the point of shutting oneself off from reality', but it's hard to see either Vanessa at the start or Erika at the end as engaged in fighting, and in fact throughout the opera there is no genuine conflict between anyone and anyone else, or anyone and an ideal, stuck to or abandoned.

Without dramatic tension, the opera needs to be injected with some urgency by the music. Barber's idiom, however, is not one of tension, but one of lyrical expansiveness — and that only in certain respects. Listening in the Barbican, and then again to a tape of the performance, I was struck by the short-breathedness of Barber's vocal lines, as contrasted with the prolonged soaring abandon of the orchestra. The characters do have arias, even ones that come to applause-inviting conclusions, but the melodic work is almost all done by the accompaniment, the soloist having launched into a phrase which he, or almost always she, leaves to the orchestra to develop and expand.

Barber, like Richard Strauss in this as in many respects, isn't much interested in male voices, especially not in tenors, and therefore the central object of desire, Anatol, son of Vanessa's first and really only love, is not much developed as a character, while the two women have huge amounts to do. In this performance William Burden made quite a mark as Anatol in the only way he could, by looking good. He gave a decent account of music which no one could do much with. Meanwhile Christine Brewer in the title role, star of the BBC's Tristan of almost a year ago, once more pulverised the house with her frustrated then fulfilled intensities: and Susan Graham, an infinitely winning artist, equally to look at and to hear, almost persuaded us that Erika is a figure of tragic stature. Both of them made the most of Barber's rather ejaculatory style of vocal writing, and suggested several interesting lines of interaction between their two personalities which unfortunately the opera gave them no opportunity to investigate in depth. There are some feeble gestures at comic relief from the tipsy Doctor, well taken by Neal Davies, and the incipient fur-fetishist Major Domo. but the lines they are given are so embarrassing it's a pity they aren't in a foreign language. The only lines that got laughs were ones that weren't meant to.

And yet it is a work that at no point bores one, and that does carry some conviction, in a way that Walton's Troilus and Cressida, to take an obvious comparison, never does. The sickly atmosphere of Vanessa's household, the contrast between her self-centred, self-generating emotions and the initially outward-going, generous ones of Erika, which later become indistinguishable from Vanessa's, are effectively indicated and precisely suited to Barber's idiom. In the theatre I got a strong impression of the superiority of the first two acts over the third, and I still think the musical inventiveness is stronger; but the situation in the third act itself carries the thing through, When I think of the phony and sterile but with-it new operatic efforts I've been exposed to over the last few years, I feel it is something of a scandal that Vanessa still awaits its opera-house debut here (and almost everywhere else).

At the Linbury Studio the Theatre Francais de la Musique put on a couple of performances of Debussy's Pelleas at Milisande, with piano accompaniment (Debussy's own, and therefore minus the interludes we are used to) and with scarcely any props or scenery. It worked extraordinarily well, thanks primarily to the haunted, terrible and pitiable Golaud of Philippe Le Chevalier, whose voice may even be big enough for performance in a full-sized theatre. I always find Golaud the only tolerable figure in this perplexing work, and Le Chevalier's torment, his realisation of his lack of appeal to Melisande compared to the empty Pe!leas, and his finding himself an unwilling but driven torturer and killer, were nearly unendurable in their nakedness. The lack of orchestra seemed insignificant, in what was a striking and unexpectedly rewarding evening.