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Reviews

<em>Pelléas et Mélisande</em>, Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the BBC Proms
18 Jul 2018

PROM 5: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

Stefan Herheim’s production of Debussy’s magnificent 1902 opera for Glyndebourne has not been universally acclaimed. The Royal Albert Hall brought with it, in this semi-staged production, a different set of problems - and even imitated some of the production’s original ones, notably the vast shadow of the organ which somewhat replicates Glyndebourne’s 1920’s Organ Room, and by a huge stretch of the imagination the forest in which so much of the opera’s action is set.

Pelléas et Mélisande, Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the BBC Proms

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Christina Gansch (Mélisande, Christopher Purves (Golaud), Pelléas (John Chest)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

That the semi-staging probably rescued the evening from large-scale failure - as many semi-staging’s do - had much to do with focussing the drama of this opera rather tightly. It was largely beautifully acted, with some of the symbolism and mystery of the text much less micro-managed than in a full-scale production of the opera.

I think Sinéad O’Neil’s staging is mostly admirable. It would have been easy to have done very little, but she does quite the reverse. Some scenes are certainly more compelling than others - Golaud’s hair-pulling scene, with Mélisande writhing as if bound to a stake, is rather monstrously done. Golaud, from one of the choir stalls, acts just like a malevolent puppet-master. The end of Act III, where Golaud persuades Yniold to spy into the windows of the tower, was genuinely rather terrifying - indeed, it’s reasonably rare to find any production where the tension between these two characters seems to fit with the music Debussy wrote but it does here. Pelléas and Golaud wandering through the castle dungeons only worked through careful lighting but it was magnificently sepulchral nevertheless. On the downside, interior scenes looked and felt cluttered and had the unintended effect of making one feel everyone had fallen on very hard times; it often felt like downstairs at Downton Abbey. Importing the original productions hefty over-reliance on hand gestures, especially the perpetual covering of eyes, became slightly grating; one often felt one was trying to read sign language. Often there’s so much going on it’s against the very synthesis of the music itself. Much of this opera, for better or worse, is about stillness and that’s a concept that the staging really didn’t appreciate.

Arkel et al.jpgBrindley Sherratt (Arkel), John Chest (Pelléas), Karen Cargill (Geneviève). Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

I did find the casting a problem. Debussy attached great significance to the libretto of this opera - indeed, the rhythms of the words are quite meticulously designed to be heard in this opera - so it was disappointing that so much of the sung French was so opaque. It had little to do with the fact that the hall sometimes swallowed voices, or they simply disappeared, rather that it wasn’t a particularly refined cast. In one sense this is a rather misty, or ethereal opera, and the lack of detail in the voices rather added to this. Karen Cargill’s Geneviève, for example, was luxury casting - but she was so velvety, so vocally secure that she rather forgot to bring any sense of mystery or depth to her character. Christopher Purves, as Golaud, seemed a tad one dimensional to me. This is perhaps the most vividly drawn character in the entire opera, but that was entirely irrelevant here. What we got was someone who acted beautifully but sang as if Golaud was entirely driven by anger and violence; the fact Purves felt the need to dominate the orchestra again suggested a lack of depth - this is a man possessed by raging jealousy, too, and innately virile; it didn’t come across that way. John Chest’s Pelléas began a little nervously - some of his A flats were flaky - but of all the male leads he was the most successful at pitching the balance between rhythm and concept - and his singing became notably more passionate during the evening. If the voice had been a little frayed earlier on, it was notably more secure by the time of his death. Christina Gansch’s Mélisande was girlish enough, but the blandness of the voice, and the lack of nuance, left me wondering why this particular Golaud and Pelléas would be involved with her at all. Only Chloé Briot’s Yniold - the sole native French speaker among this cast - was really a success at getting to grips with the text, and also doing something meaty with her role.

Golaud and Ynold.jpgChristopher Purves (Golaud), Chloé Briot (Yniold). Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

The undisputed highlight of the evening was the playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I’ve rarely - if ever - heard this score better played. The LPO is becoming one of the great opera orchestras: time and time again, I found the detail a revelation, the internal instrumental voices, the clarity of phrasing and the impeccable balance of tone and colour remarkable. The woodwind, especially, have such flexibility they can almost do anything asked of them. I think one can certainly quibble with Robin Ticciati’s approach to the opera itself - and this was certainly reflected in the LPO’s overall sound. At times I did feel as if I was listening to Parsifal rather than Pelléas et Mélisande - the Wagnerian inferences are certainly in Debussy’s score but sometimes you wondered if Ticciati thought it was Klingsor wielding the sword rather than Golaud. The strings, too, sounded heavy at times - but what a wonderful, spellbinding richness of sound it was. Ticciati took a somewhat majestic view of the score, too, less overtly sensuous than some, certainly less French, but he can whip up tension and terror when it’s needed but there are also beautifully seductive, dark-hued moments too. It certainly won’t appeal to everyone, and sometimes borders on being self-indulgent, but the tightrope he walks is just narrowly a viable one.

The tightrope that Glyndebourne’s semi-staged production walked wasn’t entirely a successful one, but very few productions of this magnificent opera manage to make a complete success of it. Not the most satisfying Pelléas, but a ravishing orchestral feast I won’t soon forget.

Marc Bridle

Prom 5: Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (semi-staging based on production by Stefan Herheim)

Golaud - Christopher Purves, Mélisande - Christina Gansch, Geneviève - Karen Cargill, Arkel - Brindley Sherratt, Pelléas - John Chest, Yniold - Chloé Briot. Sinéad O’Neill; conductor - Robin Ticciati, London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Glyndebourne Chorus.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Tuesday 17th July 2018.

Available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

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