Debussy died almost one hundred years ago. During his career, he was inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1893 play, Pelléas et Mélisande. He admired it so much that he felt compelled to compose his own re-imaginary through opera. As I discovered on Tuesday night at the BBC Proms, through Glyndebourne’s semi-staged production at the Royal Albert Hall, Debussy was an innovator; not afraid of experimenting with music and form. At the time, Debussy had no libretto to work on; instead, he utilised dialogue and speech to produce drawn-out vocal lines. This was heightened by the mysterious sound world he created: layered with hidden meanings and symbolic secrets. It is, perhaps, why so many opera aficionados appreciate Debussy’s single complete opera.
Conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) is Glyndebourne’s festival music director, Robin Ticciati. Being a first-timer to Pelléas et Mélisande I was won over by the score. It seemed that every note played an integral part in unveiling the intriguing narrative. On the face of it, the story can be described simply as follows: a man finds a girl in a forest and he marries her. Then, the brother of the man falls in love with the girl, so the man kills his brother and the woman dies. On the whole, the opera is far more complicated and profound than this, in a good way.
Norwegian Stage director, Stefan Herheim, and Sinéad O’Neill who recreated the set for the Royal Albert Hall stage, offers up a production that allows the audience to fill in the rest of the gaps on how they see the opera develop further. That’s through the delicate and careful performances from its strong cast of soloists and the pleasurable music playing from the LPO. The most transformative part of the opera is the music. Over the course of the evening, my eyes felt inclined to close themselves and hone in on the wonderful sounds, instruments and voices I was hearing. (CD recordings of Pelléas et Mélisande must make a killing on Amazon!) As I learnt from social media, BBC Radio 3 listeners – who have access to the BBC Proms every night of the season from 7. 30 pm – were utterly thrilled by the aesthetic beauty and purity of Debussy’s musical genius.
As far as the stage was concerned, there was no hint of a castle, sea, cliff or forest. There were no lighthouses, either, or any set pieces that would have been provided at Glyndebourne’s festival stage. The audience was left to the whim of the first-rate singers to evoke the drama, tension and tragic nature of the opera. Their singing was sensational and suitably aligned to the tone of the atmospheric score. Christopher Purves is a power source as Golaud. In many ways, the opera is more about Golaud’s character than Pelléas or Mélisande. Despite the title’s name, Purves’s emotional and torn depiction of a duped husband is convincing and raw. Vocally, Purves is on the mark alongside Christina Gansch and John Chest. Gansch’s Mélisande appeared saintly and angelic on the semi-stage, yet her character’s persona is more enigmatic. Throughout the evening, Gansch developed Mélisande’s image, from naive and vulnerable in the beginning to sensuous and confident towards the end. Her singing was an art itself. Chest also provided a kind of innocence in his evocation as Golaud’s brother, Pelléas and his baritone was tender and sweet, which effortlessly suited Gansch’s stellar voice.
Karen Cargill as Geneviève, Golaud and Pelléas’s mother, gave a charming stage performance. Although she is mostly present in the first act, her vocal abilities set the bar in terms of overall quality for the rest of the evening, and it succeeded. She too gave a poignant and heartrending performance. Brindley Sheratt as the King of Allemonde shouldn’t go unnoticed either for his excellent singing on the night.
Overall the production at the BBC Proms was brilliant and a wonderful way to experience the 2018 season for the first time, yet there was one thing that stood out for me and seemed out of place. This might have been Herheim’s decision, but it is what seemed to be a sexual assault scene, which I couldn’t find any trace of in any synopsis of the opera. In act 3, scene 4, Golaud forces his son, from another woman, Yniold to spy on Pelléas or Mélisande from a window. In past productions, Yniold was performed by a tenor. Given my limited knowledge of Pelléas et Mélisande, I do not know whether a rape scene had been recreated in another production. Either way, I still didn’t feel it was necessary. Sadly, mezzo-soprano Chloé Briot was the victim here. She shined vocally as the curious and well-behaved child of Golaud, yet this theatre direction has to be questioned. It almost tarnished the entire production for me. Again, somehow sexual violence is misplaced on stage, which ultimately ruins the experience. What’s the point in adding it? To embellish? To cause controversy? Just stop it. Honestly, can we put a stop to this, please?
Pelléas et Mélisande was shown on the BBC Proms on Tuesday 17 July, 6. 30 pm. If you want to listen to a recording of the performance broadcasted live at BBC Radio 3, please click here. For more information on the BBC Proms 2018 season, go here.
(I was provided a press ticket to review the show.) [Header image: Karen Cargill (Geneviève), Brindley Sheratt (King of Allemonde) and John Chest (Pelléas) Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.)
Right! @bbcproms + @glyndebourne + Pelléas et Mélisande was compelling tonight. It was my first time hearing & seeing it staged and it was better than I had expected. Simply gorgeous in every way.Every note played an intricate part of the mystery.And the voices…The voices! 😮
— Trendfem.com🌸🎶 (@MaryGNguyen) July 17, 2018
— Trendfem.com🌸🎶 (@MaryGNguyen) July 18, 2018