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Reviews

<em>Pelléas et Mélisande</em>, Glyndebourne Festival Opera
03 Jul 2018

Pelléas et Mélisande: Glyndebourne Festival Opera

What might have been? Such was a thought that came to my mind more than once during this, the premiere of Glyndebourne’s new Pelléas et Mélisande. What might have been if Stefan Herheim had not changed his Konzept so late in the day? (I had actually forgotten about that until reminded during the interval, yet had already began to wonder whether the production had been, especially for him, unusually rushed.)

Pelléas et Mélisande, Glyndebourne Festival Opera

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Pelléas et Mélisande

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

What might have been, had this magnificent statement of intent - one of the greatest opera directors alive - from Sebastian F. Schwarz’s intendancy not been followed by manœuvring to ensure that something more ‘English’ would thereafter prove the order of the day? What might have been, had this Pelléas been conducted by someone with a little more feeling for and understanding of Debussy’s score - it would not have been difficult - than Robin Ticciati? What, ultimately, might have been, were operatic culture in this country not so philistine and class-ridden? The good news - our lives are at present as full of good news as those we see in Pelléas - is that leaving the European Union will only serve to make everything far, far worse. C’est au tour de pauvres petites.

I was thinking, though - which is considerably better than not. Even if I could not help but wonder what Pelléas set on a spaceship would have been like - on the face of it, it sounds a brilliant idea - Glyndebourne’s Organ Room, from time to time a salle modulable yet never escapable, turned the action and responsibility squarely upon us, the audience. (If only the worst-behaved had noticed. Some laughed at the end. Laughed! It was not difficult to think of them as Faragistes.) It is specific, yes, but not exclusivist. Indeed, with its heavy wood-panelling in Philipp Fürhofer’s outstanding set design, it might almost be the Victorianised combination room of an Oxford or Cambridge college or even something from the Hamburg of Buddenbrooks. Ancestry and tradition weigh down on it, though, as seen on the severe wall portraits. It is about us, then, but also about how we have become who we are.

‘Us’ in this sense means taking on aestheticism, asking ourselves as well as selfish fellow audience members what we think we are doing and why. These are people engaged in fruitless, fatal pursuits - but in this case they are also aesthetic pursuits. They try to paint new pictures and cannot. Why not? On account of tradition, or account of an aestheticism that has them retreat from lives, even try to turn their lives into art? It need not be either/or; it almost certainly is not. We see through their attempts at art, though: literally, for the paintings, if they exist at all, are beyond the fourth wall. Is not Mélisande, after all, a blank canvas? Men certainly tend to wish her so - as with Lulu. It is just a hobby, though, is it not? Something for rich people to do to while away their time, perhaps like building an opera house so that ‘your’ - the possessive is important - wife might sing in it. Pelléas might seem different; he is, here, an artist, a younger Debussyan dandy rather than the elderly huntsman trying to be something he is not and certainly was not. (Are Golaud and Pelléas to be identified with the composer? Perhaps, perhaps not. If you do not want ambiguity, this is not the opera for you.) But is he? Is he really? Or does he just wear summer clothes in a darkened room? Perhaps his aestheticised life is still more dishonest; perhaps ours are too. Perhaps, peut-être. ‘Je pars peut-être demain.’

Mélisande (Christina Gansch) and Pelléas (John Chest).jpg Mélisande (Christina Gansch) and Pelléas (John Chest). Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

We do that to children too, especially those of us who claim to be shocked by the very suggestion. Germaine Greer has fallen off the rails spectacularly in recent years, but her insight that we are all paedophiles still holds; indeed it holds more strongly than ever, if less so for those of us unburdened by ‘family’. And so, when Yniold - yes, I too had been mumbling that I should have preferred to hear a treble - is unmasked as a woman all along, with locks aspiring to those of Mélisande, we are obliged to ask ourselves questions. The violence we see, feel aestheticised and sublimated all around us suddenly becomes, as the interval comes, something we can no longer ignore. Those blows that never quite led anywhere come to seem something more than ‘boring’.

By the same token, however, should they perhaps not have become something a little sooner? When does representing boredom become merely boring? I am not sure that Herheim, usually a master at treading of multiple lines, does not trip, even fall, in this case. An object lesson in that respect was Christiane Pohle’s revelatory post-Beckett staging for the Bavarian State Opera. Meaninglessness was the thing there, not ennui as such; the production was all the better for it. I cannot help but wonder whether the negative reaction it received was laced with misogyny - and/or perhaps a journalistic lack of understanding of ‘modern’ theatre. It was, at any rate, difficult not to ask such a question in a work that focuses on abusive behaviour and yet here, at least, attempts to avoid addressing that behaviour.

Golaud (Christopher Purves) and Yniold (Chloé Briot).jpg Golaud (Christopher Purves) and Yniold (Chloé Briot). Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Later on, when it becomes more explicit, when we see that Pelléas and Mélisande literally stage their own death - is it actually a real death at all, or just an act - everything falls into place. Mélisande has already - in fact she did so straight away - ease(le)d out Geneviève. The family, closing ranks, would clearly avenge itself, so perhaps playing at Tristan and Isolde is all that it is left. It has not been an easy road; nor, surely, should it have been. However, just a little relief from the claustrophobia might actually render it more powerful. As things stand, there remains more than a little suspicion that earlier tedium is a handy, even suggestive excuse, yet perhaps nevertheless an excuse in part. Bloodied clowns certainly make their point; this sick Liebestod from the Theatre of the Absurd has still not left my imagination. Yniold, now herself, visits the Organ Room as a guest, an opera-goer. It makes the point, yes, but might it not be better left unmade?

Tradition is, after all, sometimes necessary, or at least helpful - as the Roman Catholic Church would rightly tell us. It often provides an important counterweight to literalism, to fundamentalism. Collective wisdom enables development; each one of us need not re-invent the wheel. (Aesthetes breathe a collective sigh of relief.) As Pierre Boulez pointed out in challenging - though not, as some have claimed, denying - tradition, ‘a strong personality will inevitably transform it [tradition].’ That still leaves the problem, of course, of what to do about personalities that are not ‘strong’ or do not wish to be. ‘Ne me touchez-pas! Ne me-touchez-pas!’ Is the conclusion here bleak or weak? Is it too easy to say that it is what we want it to be? Doubtless. Is it what we will make of it? By definition it more or less has to be, but is that simply to evade the question? And is that wrong? Debussy, after all, is the unsurpassed master of musical ambiguity.

Arkel (Brindley Sherratt), Pelléas (John Chest) and Geneviève (Karen Cargill).jpg Arkel (Brindley Sherratt), Pelléas (John Chest) and Geneviève (Karen Cargill). Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Tradition, or at least learning, would certainly have benefited the conducting, at best featureless, at worst frankly jejune, we heard from Ticciati. Debussy’s genius shone through, although more the debt to Wagner than what distinguished him from the old Klingsor. That, however, was surely the doing of the London Philharmonic, drawing when it could on its vast reserves of operatic and symphonic experience. Alas, such uninspired musical direction - bleeding titbits of Wagner for people who do not like Wagner - did not help the singers either. Christopher Purves was presented as an older Golaud and sang as such: nothing wrong with it. His anger was wonderfully sublimated until it was not. It would have gained greater musical context, though, as would the rest of the cast’s, had there been - well, greater musico-dramatic context. Christiana Gansch and John Chest likewise offered good vocal performances as the doomed lovers, but something seemed to be missing. (Should something be missing? Perhaps. Again, however, it is a fine line.) Richard Wiegold was an undoubted hero of the evening, singing from a box whilst an indisposed Brindley Sherratt acted out the role of Arkel below. Karen Cargill offered rich-toned benevolence - I think - as Geneviève; as so often in this role, one wished there were more to hear. There was much to admire from Chloé Briot, Michael Mofidian, and Michael Wallace, although it was difficult not to think that all concerned would have benefited from greater certainty and clarity elsewhere.

Was it worth it, then, to have annoyed the right people, bluff English purveyors of ‘common sense’? Of course. They will not like Pelléas anyway; if they think they do, it is because they have not remotely understood it and think of it as vaguely ‘beautiful’. Is it enough to have annoyed them? Of course not. Does this represent Herheim’s best work? No. Does the production stand in need of revision? Very much so. Does it also need a conductor with a little more idea what might be going on and what might be at stake? Still more so. And yet, I have been thinking about it ever since, and show no sign of stopping. In the meantime, hasten to see Barrie Kosky’s Berlin production and, should it ever be revived, Pohle’s Munich staging . There are always, as we æsthetes/æstheticists will tell you, great recordings too. Desormière or Karajan? Boulez or Abbado? Why choose? With Boulez, you can even see Peter Stein before he lost it. ‘What,’ you might ask, ‘is “it”,’? Such is surely part of what Herheim’s production is about - perhaps, peut-être, still more so than he intended.

Mark Berry

Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
Golaud: Christopher Purves; Mélisande: Christiana Gansch; Geneviève: Karen Cargill; Arkel: Brindley Sherratt/Richard Wiegold; Pelléas: John Chest; Yniold: Chloé Briot; Doctor: Michael Mofidian; Shepherd: Michael Wallace. Director: Stefan Herheim; Designs: Philipp Fürhofer; Lighting: Stefan Herheim, Tony Simpson; Dramaturgy: Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach. Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Nicholas Jenkins)/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Robin Ticciati (conductor).

Glyndebourne Opera House, Sussex, 30 June 2018

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