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?
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
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