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<em>Pelléas et Mélisande</em>, Garsington Opera
18 Jun 2017

Pelléas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera

“I am nearer to the greatest secrets of the next world than I am to the smallest secrets of those eyes!” So despairs Golaud, enflamed by jealousy, suspicious of his mysterious wife Mélisande’s love for his half-brother Pelléas. Michael Boyd’s thought-provoking new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera certainly ponders plentiful secrets: of the conscience, of the subconscious, of the soul. But, with his designer Tom Piper, Boyd brings the opera’s dreams and mysteries into landscapes that are lit, symbolically and figuratively, with precision.

Pelléas et Mélisande, Garsington Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Andrea Carroll (Mélisande)

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

Piper’s intricate set fuses the antique with the modern and embraces Maeterlinck’s allegory with the meticulousness of a pre-Raphaelite painter. The designer captures the realism of Maeterlinck’s natural world and decadent decay as well as the symbolic blindness of his text. The result is a timeless world of fairy-tale and scenic enchantment, allied with a tangible emotional drama.

Questions are posed from the start, when Mélisande, a princess bride of Arthurian lore, trails the ash-grey, twenty-five-foot train of her white gown as she glides in rapture towards a stagnant pool. Like her tumbling knee-length hair, the train possesses an erotic energy which immediately lures the leather-clad crossbow-clutching hunter, Golaud, as he espies her crown fall into the dark waters. This Golaud, in search of a wild beast in the forest surrounding the castle of the kingdom of Allemonde, might have wandered in from a Brothers Grimm tale. Mélisande is fearful, almost hysterical - “Don't touch me! Or I'll throw myself in the water!” - but sensing the strength of her will, Golaud is disconcerted and drawn. “Where do you belong? Where were you born?” Golaud asks. In these opening moments, Boyd effectively introduces this sensuous figure into an ambiguous narrative, establishing the opera’s tragic entwinement of loneliness and introspection with female beauty and sexual longing.

Garsington Opea 2017 Pelléas et Mélisande Andrea Carroll (Mélisande) Paul Gay (Golaud).jpg Andrea Carroll (Mélisande) Paul Gay (Golaud). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Piper’s set is a huge arching ‘cave’ which enfolds and encloses multiple terrains: a crumbling Gothic castle with a central curving stairwell rising to a decaying balcony and medieval turret; the mossy bank beside the Blind Man’s Well; the beggars’ hovel whose three inhabitants so alarm Mélisande; and, dangling aloft, the treacherous ladders that lead to the vaults where Golaud will test Pelléas’ resolve in the face of the stench of death.

Paradoxically, alongside such gloomy subterranean terrains, the blue ‘ceiling’ of the cave also evokes a world outside - the night sky, the seashell grotto where Mélisande professes to have lost her wedding ring - and glimpses of light through the panels in the decrepit castle doors foreshadow the final moments of the opera, when Mélisande will demand that the doors be opened so that she can watch the magical sunset over the sea, a symbolic reflection of her own fate.

Malcolm Rippeth’s delicate lighting offers unusual spotlights which do not always fall where we might expect, highlighting the tarnished gold of fractured balustrades, the foul vapour mistily swirling above the pool. Contrasting with the dark corners spotted with shifting shadows there is some brightness with the stately entrances of the aging, infirm Arkel and his entourage, the latter confirming the shroud of courtly romance which envelops the work.

Garsington Opera 2017 Pelléas et Mélisande Jonathan McGovern and Andrea Carroll in title roles credit Clive Barda.jpg Jonathan McGovern and Andrea Carroll in title roles. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

This was a night of tremendous debuts at Garsington for the eponymous pair of hesitant lovers. Jonathan McGovern has a lovely brightness at the top of his baritone which captured all of Pelléas’ youthful ardency, aspiration and doubt. The striking qualities that I admired back in 2011, when reviewing a recital at the Wigmore Hall , have ripened wonderfully and McGovern has developed flexibility alongside vigour and greater variety of colour. This is not his first essay at the role and he has built fruitfully on the experience garnered with English Touring Opera in 2015. The baritone’s declaration of love, before he is killed by Golaud, had a power as penetrating as the uncontrollable ecstasy that Pelléas experiences beneath the turret from which Mélisande unfurls her hair. While the French text was not always perfectly enunciated, McGovern used the fragmented phrases to reveal - for example, in the scene where he waits of Mélisande to arrive so that they might flee - all of Pelléas’ contradictions and delusions. Given that the role falls too low for many tenors and often taxes baritones at the top this could become a signature role for McGovern.

American soprano Andrea Carroll only recently completed two years as a member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, but she has now been snapped up by the Vienna State Opera whose ensemble she has joined, and one can see why. Carroll has a vibrant, gleaming soprano which is particularly rich in the lower register. She articulated Debussy’s melodic fragments with utter naturalness, allying crystalline purity with vocal strength; moreover, she shaped the phrases superbly, guided by the rise and fall of Maeterlinck’s childlike French prose. Carroll’s vocal and physical beauty gave Mélisande a presence which was all-pervading. Joseph Kerman may have found Mélisande ‘exasperating … a mysterious, beautiful young creature who suffers quietly, asks nothing, and never acts’, but while there was no doubting this Melisande’s suffering - the Lady of Shalott’s lament, ‘I am half-sick of shadows’, never seemed more pertinent - Carroll conveyed not only her timidity but also her impulsiveness and her playful coquetry. Her mystery was duplicitous but there were also striking moments of truthfulness: as she sang her unaccompanied song, while combing her hair at the turret window, Mélisande seemed to step out of time, detaching herself from the dark drama which unfolded around her.

Garsington Opera 2017 Pelléas et Mélisande William Davies (Yniold), Paul Gay (Golaud) credit Clive Barda.jpg William Davies (Yniold), Paul Gay (Golaud). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Paul Gay was vocally less secure, finding the upper lying lines difficult to control at times, but he conveyed all of Golaud’s contradictory, self-torturing qualities: his sullen moroseness, his immature violence, his agonised love, his tenderness for his son Yniold. In the scene in which he tries, in desperation, to force the boy - who is on the cusp of understanding - prematurely into the deceit and betrayal of the adult world was intensely moving. Faced with the disintegration of his world, at his own hands, Golaud’s passion breaks him, and Gay’s delivery of the unstable phrases with their rapid accelerations and jerking rhythms was tortured and tragic.

William Davies’ Yniold was a more significant presence in the drama than is often the case, as he played innocently with his golden ball which, though it hung like a moon-lantern, offered the protagonists no illumination. Inevitably the treble’s words did not always come across, but the purity of tone was a breath of freshness and serenity within the prevailing murky confusion and growing darkness.

Scottish bass Brian Bannatyne-Scott captured the fading health and status of King Arkel while retaining his nobility, but did not quite convey the poignancy of the role. Susan Bickley was a perfectly dignified consort in regal purple, as his wife Geneviève, although her account of the happier past might have had more sense of nostalgic regret for what has been lost. Dingle Yandell as the Doctor and Joseph Padfield as the Shepherd completed the fine cast.

Garsinton Opera 2017 Pelléas et Mélisande Brian Bannatyne-Scott (Arkel), Susan Bickley (Geneviève), Jonathan McGovern (Pelléas) credit Clive Barda.jpg Brian Bannatyne-Scott (Arkel), Susan Bickley (Geneviève), Jonathan McGovern (Pelléas). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Garsington have just begun a five-year collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra and this was a fortuitous opera with which to open that partnership, for the players are fresh from their Aix-en-Provence performances of the work last summer. Under Jac van Steen’s baton the Philharmonic created exquisite soundscapes in the orchestral interludes and punctuated the vocal lines adroitly. Van Steen went for a less-is-more approach, and it worked well; he refrained from overt emotionalism and let the score speak, and there was a keen sense of unity and consistency between instrumental and vocal lines.

The details of Debussy’s music-painting were gorgeously crafted: the throbbing oboe that accompanies the dejected Golaud in the forest; the fateful chiming of the clarinet when Pelléas presses Mélisande to tell Golaud the truth about her lost ring, whose fall into the unreachable depths of the well is conjured by slithering harp glissandi; the tense, short crescendos for the lower strings, bassoon and timpani which depict the closing of the castle gates.

The pervasive secrecy of Debussy’s opera was preserved in Bond’s hands but he also suggested that the mysteries are more contradictory than we might at first imagine, the desires both more aimless and more complex. Boulez remarked that, ‘The real difficulty in interpreting Pelléas is to avoid both pointlessly heroic gestures and rhetorical attitudes on the one hand and timidity and “safe” understatement on the other.’ In this magical, troubling production, Boyd and Piper manage both to tell the (fairy-)tale and protect its intangibility.

Claire Seymour

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

Pelléas - Jonathan McGovern, Mélisande - Andrea Carroll, Golaud - Paul Gay, Arkel - Brian Bannatyne-Scott, Geneviève - Susan Bickley, Yniold - William Davies, Doctor - Dingle Yandell, Shepherd - Joseph Padfield; Director - Michael Boyd, Conductor - Jac van Steen, Designer - Tom Piper, Lighting Designer - Malcolm Rippeth, Movement Director - Liz Ranken.

Garsington Opera, Wormsley; Friday 16th June 2017.

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