25 Nov 2008
Debussy’s Pelléas - a fine swansong for Independent Opera in London
Pelléas et Mélisande in a 200 seat theatre, with just 35 musicians and no pit?
Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding. It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it.
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Maurice Greene (1696-1755) had a highly successful musical career. Organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a position to which he was elected when he was just 22 years-old, he later became organist of the Chapel Royal, Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge and, from 1735, Master of the King’s Music.
Pelléas et Mélisande in a 200 seat theatre, with just 35 musicians and no pit?
For many devotees of Debussy’s great work this might have seemed heresy and doomed to failure, but they would have been wrong. For three nights at Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Bayliss Theatre in London last week capacity audiences were treated to not only a magnificently innovative production but also to a highly successful and totally sympathetic orchestral reduction of the score that never once sounded thin or lacking in texture and Debussian detail.
Add to this some very promising young voices, nurtured in the tradition of Independent Opera, and this was a fine way to end, sadly, a programme of opera stagings by Independent and to set the bar high for any similar undertakings in the future.
The atmosphere of fatalism, of humans moving within the eternal constraints of their kind, enclosed in the “forest” of the castle’s stifling social norms was brilliantly realised with a dark set consisting of 3 zig-zag wooden walkways supported by pillars which created both a “pit” for the musicians underneath and an exit and entry space, on occasion, for the singers. The castle’s permanent residents, Arkel and Geneviève, move mainly on wires controlled by “servants” (or masters?)visible at the sides of the walkways, presumably indicating their incapacity to break out of the prison of their own making, whilst the other characters are “free” to move at will. All are dressed in the constricting costumes of the opera’s own time, circa 1902, and everything seems to have a patina of dust and dereliction about it, with both castle and grotto, forest and seashore, merely hinted at with single props and occasional flats. Mélisande, the focus and intuit of this psychological drama, seems to emerge from these shadows, is illuminated briefly and fatally as she embarks on her relationships with Golaud and Pelléas, and returns to whatever realm she came from, leaving her child as legacy, or, possibly, her curse.
If the design, set and direction (Madeleine Boyd/Alessandro Talevi) worked memorably well, then it was entirely complemented by Stephen McNeff’s scholarly but entirely sympathetic new orchestration for 35 instruments. Never once did one feel anything was missing — the smaller space absorbed the smaller string sound, and other important Debussy sound-world effects were retained by clever reallocation of parts. Significant obbligatos — flute, harp, oboe etc — were all there, and if this put more strain on the soloists, it didn’t show. Stylish and dramatic by turn, effortlessly idiomatic, conductor Dominic Wheeler gave this refined version the attention it deserved.
The singing was uniformly good, sometimes excellent, with the many French speakers in the cast keeping the all-important rhythm and style of the libretto intact. If Ingrid Perruche was a trifle too robust, both vocally and physically, for an ideal Mélisande, there was no doubting her abilities to interpret the text intelligently. Her most believable Pelléas was the young Norwegian baritone Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy who, after a slightly strained start, sang with fluency and the requisite ardour, making light of the high tessitura. In perfect contrast to him was the dark, resonant bass-baritone of Andrew Foster-Williams as the tortured Golaud, a singer whose voice has blossomed into something very special these past few years. The tone was fully supported and consistent through the range, he has power to spare and obviously relishes this kind of dramatic challenge relatively early in his career; it cannot be long before his Golaud is taken up by a major house. The Arkel of bass Frédéric Bourreau was assured and poignant — he managed to convey a sense of what the old king might once have been — whilst Marie Elliot as Geneviéve used her warm mezzo to good effect, despite the quite literal confines of her role. Young soprano Caryl Hughes as the child Yniold cleverly whitened her voice to almost boy-soprano tone and was convincing as the innocent vaguely troubled by what he observes around him. Young Czech bass Vojtech Safarik sang his few Doctor’s lines with assurance.
Ingrid Perruche (Mélisande) and Andrew Foster-Williams (Golaud)
This was opera as it should be but seldom is — innovative yet respectful, ambitious yet pragmatic, and above all committed to the development of talent in all departments. We shall miss Independent Opera’s productions in the UK and can only hope that their ideals are carried on elsewhere.
Sue Loder © 2008