This flawless rendition of Samuel Barber’s award-winning opera stunned Luke Dell.
Before I start this review I feel that it is only right that I should confess to something: this is the first opera I have ever seen. So upon entering the Robinson Auditorium I had very little idea what to expect…
Well, not only did this production exceed my expectations and preconceptions, it absolutely smashed them, for this show was consistently stunning and full to the brim with intense emotion and unbelievably powerful performances.
Cecilia Bailey gave an outstanding performance, both vocally and emotionally, in her role as the title character, Vanessa, perfectly capturing the emotional contrast between despair, frustration, affection, and anger in the opera’s opening scene alone.
However, the show was stolen by her niece, Erika, played by the astounding Judith Lebiez. Not only was her voice a delight to listen to but her characterisation was also incredible. Judith fully captured the intense anger at the end of the first act after Anatol (excellently portrayed by William Searle) and her aunt confessed their love for one another, violently throwing her bright red shoes across the stage and tearing down the dustsheets around the house in an act of heated passion and fury. This contrasts with some of the character’s other moments, where the audience witnesses uncomfortable scenes of anguish and sadness as Erika is gradually abandoned by her family.
However, the opera wasn’t all about getting deep, powerful, emotional responses from the audience. There were a number of light-hearted moments too, particularly in scenes involving the drunken doctor played by Sam Hewitt, whose impersonation of Vanessa whilst stumbling around the stage was hilarious. Additionally, his attempt to teach Anatol how to dance also gained a number of laughs from the audience. The comic relief helped to ease the emotional intensity of the performance.
The show’s chorus was also outstanding, providing some excellent vocals throughout. One particularly memorable moment was during the engagement celebrations, where, clad in a pure white dress, Erika’s heartbroken sobs were unnervingly contrasted by the frivolities and fantastic vocals emerging from behind the wings.
But it was not just the cast that stood out during this show, in fact one of the highlights was the beautiful music being played on the solitary piano at the side of the stage by the amazingly talented Naomi Woo. It was no wonder she was treated to the largest applause at the end of the show, as she managed to tackle the extremely complicated musical score with ease. I would be very surprised if she didn’t have a highly successful musical career ahead of her.
From a production perspective, the show was phenomenal, in particular the fantastic costumes arranged by Solène Lapierre. The use of various dresses to distinguish the emotions of the two female leads was particularly ingenious. The floral dresses worn after the arrival of Anatol clearly contrasted with the plain blue and brown dresses at the start of the show, highlighting rekindled youth and passion, the latter also shown through Vanessa’s adoption of a bright red, revealing dress and red silk dressing gown during the second act.
The lighting direction from Trui Malten was very effective, particularly in one of the show’s final songs sung by the five leads where the casts’ faces were hidden in shadow. The staging too was excellent, with very good use of the full auditorium. I particularly liked the idea of deepening the stage as the opera progressed by gradually opening the curtains and revealing new performance spaces. However, it has to be noted that some of the set changes were unnecessarily long-winded and slightly awkward for the audience to sit through in silence (some music from Naomi in one of the later scene changes was well received).
In addition, although I can see why it was done, the dropping of the white screen at the back of the stage before the masquerade party was superfluous, revealing the red brick inner-workings of the theatre and rather disappointingly ruining a part of the show’s dramatic effect. Let’s just say I was more than relieved when the screen was at long-last raised again part-way through the final act.
Nonetheless, this did not detract from Trui Malten and Michael Morrison’s excellent set. The stage was littered with a number of items of furniture, all of which, particularly the sleek chaise longue, were well used throughout. At the start, they were covered in white dustsheets, which, as the opera progressed, were slowly taken away. But then these sheets were eventually returned, highlighting how the narrative had come full circle. Initially, it was Vanessa who was nervously anticipating the arrival of her lover, but by the end, it was Erika’s turn to be the one to wait.
Overall, Vanessa was a fantastic show, which delved deep into the human heart through a number of vocally stunning and emotionally moving performances. This may well have been my first opera, but I sure hope that it isn’t my last.