Glyndebourne’s annual showcase at the Proms this year derived from its new staging of Debussy’s ever-intriguing Pelléas et Mélisande, a controversial production. Played without some of the distractions and accretions of Stefan Herheim’s concept this performance smouldered with ever-increasing intensity; the extended silence in the Hall at the end was testament to that. The London Philharmonic Orchestra had the generous space of the Royal Albert Hall to fill and under Robin Ticciati’s assured leadership the subtlety of Debussy’s orchestration unfolded with amazing clarity, the shadowy gloominess and claustrophobia of Allemonde occasionally illumined by shafts of light, although textures were always airy. There was no sense of languor at all, and myriad details emerged as if freshly minted whilst being part of a persuasive whole. Brilliant playing from lower-woodwind and -strings, harps and subtle percussion, and Ticciati’s restrained emphasis of some of the off-beat rhythms Debussy uses to underpin the emotional and dramatic undercurrents of the action and text was telling.
On this occasion the action was confined to the front apron of the stage bringing an easy and immediate communication. Some of the tics of the original staging remained – the easels and painting equipment were always prominent – but otherwise Sinéad O’Neill was perhaps a tad more faithful to Maeterlinck whilst keeping the theatrical best of the cast. Debussy’s orchestration ensures that his setting of Maeterlinck’s text (he cut a few scenes but left the dialogue almost unchanged) always ensures audibility, and the singers allowed the language with all its uncertain implications and imagery to register fully. Who are these people? What is the malaise that affects them? The sense of a riven ruling family out of touch with their subjects (we hear often of the famine affecting the populace) and looking in at themselves and conversing in a weirdly artificial way was devastatingly depicted.
Glyndebourne has assembled a truly great cast. At the centre was Christopher Purves’s superb Golaud. He charted the prince’s mental deterioration with uncompromising directness, and with masterful inflection of words allied to a wide range of vocal colours and with total avoidance of hectoring or barking. One does not stay that sympathetic to the predicament of the violent and abusive Golaud for long, but the character’s decline was riveting, unsettling viewing. The interplay with John Chest’s enigmatic Pelléas was particularly strong, particularly the moment in the Prelude to their descent to the dungeon in the second scene of Act Three where Golaud’s jealous thoughts take hold and it became clear that only one of them can live. Chest’s airy singing was engaging, but the heady abandon that a true baryton-Martin can bring to the final encounter of the lovers wasn’t quite there. It certainly didn’t mar the dramatic effect of that scene – the one moment where Debussy really allows the orchestra to let rip – and nothing but praise for Christina Gansch’s Mélisande. She illuminates her seemingly contradictory attributes of being both manipulative and naïve with silvery tones flashed through with occasional steel.
In the role of Arkel the sonorous-voiced Brindley Sherratt, making the most of long declarations and chilling when he sang “Si j’étais Dieu, j’aurais pitié du coeur des hommes...”. The velvety yet calmly imperious tones of Karen Cargill imbued her Geneviève with cool mystery, and Chloé Briot was a suitably nervous-sounding Yniold, acting the young boy with great sincerity, especially post the brutalisation by his father. Mention should also be made of the off-stage chorus – the sonic effects perfectly judged by Ticciati. This was a thrilling and unsettling presentation.