The Royal Opera – Pelléas et Mélisande [Keenlyside & Kirchschlager]

Pelléas et Mélisande – Opera in five acts after the play by Maurice Maeterlinck

Mélisande – Angelika Kirchschlager
Golaud – Gerald Finley
Geneviève – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Arkel – Robert Lloyd
Pelléas – Simon Keenlyside
Yniold – George Longworth
A shepherd / The Doctor – Robert Gleadow

The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Simon Rattle

Stanislas Nordey – Director
Arnaud Meunier – Associate Director
Emmanuel Clolus – Set Designs
Raoul Fernandez – Costume Designs
Philippe Berthomé – Lighting

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 May, 2007
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

How one presents Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” depends on how one conceives of its place in operatic history. Is it a reaction to the overkill of a grand-opera tradition that had beached itself long before the end of the nineteenth century, a continuation of Wagnerian music-drama by radically different means, or the offshoot of a French lyric opera that was itself positioned at a crossroads at the outset of the 1890s? The Royal Opera’s new production (first seen at last year’s Salzburg Easter Festival) does not decisively fall into any of these categories, but if it was an attempt to by-pass the question of what this opera actually is, then it did so from a perspective at worst predictable and at best provocative.

Certainly Stanislas Nordey’s staging of the opening scene, Mélisande and Golaud seen against large vertical constructions that merged into the general darkness, gave a sense of the powerful yet also intangible drama about to unfold. For the remaining scenes in this and the next two acts, however, Emmanuel Clolus’s constructions were shifted – not always silently – around the stage during the interludes between each scene, then opened out to reveal a portmanteau-like display of images, neatly arrayed in rows and columns, that were (largely) apposite to the scene in question. So an array of letters to underpin Geneviève’s reading of Golaud’s letter in Act Three/Scene 2, an assembly of blood-stained pillows to underline Golaud’s riding accident in Act Two/Scene 2; most striking of all, the placing of Mélisande on a platform within the upright set itself in Act Three/Scene 1 – surrounded on all sides by identical red dresses. In terms of reducing the visual element of each scene down to its archetypal image, this has much to be said for it: equally, the clinical, even sterile way in which Nordey achieved this, and also the sense of a conceptual process determined to play itself out at all costs, cannot escape the charge of bringing Debussy’s musical imagery to a simplistic level. Come the final scene of Act Three, and few in the audience could not have anticipated the placing of the eponymous protagonists as symbolic ‘shop dummies’ within the confines of the set: figures frozen in time rather than motionless in space.

During the remaining two acts, though, Nordey changed tack decisively (unless he saw it as a natural outcome of what went before) with a single, multi-layered and embossed backdrop against which the mounting tension of Act Four was played out. Only now did sound and vision come together, as did Raoul Fernandez’s attiring of Mélisande with a sensuous red dress in contrast to the gleaming but inelegant outfits – which might be described as ‘Regency-era space suits’ – worn by the residents of Allemonde.

Far from being merely a mysterious presence, she brings life and energy to a kingdom that, “Parsifal”-like, has grown lifeless and lethargic with routine. Reinforced by the perceptive lighting and silhouette effects of Philippe Berthomé, the climactic scene of Act Four – a virtual love-scene to surpass even that in “Tristan und Isolde” – is a febrile interplay of emotion simultaneously aroused and frustrated, such as could be resolved only by Golaud’s fateful intervention. The single scene of Act Five then came across as a recessional in which respects are paid to the dying anti-heroine – though with the removal of rows of white suits by the departing servants, as well as the discreet placing of Mélisande’s baby in a red shawl, at least suggesting that her influence on Allemonde will be continued through another.

As to the vocal performances, these were consistently fine but not necessarily in the way expected. No one could accuse Angelika Kirchschlager of lacking presence as Mélisande. From her very first appearance, she commanded attention by far more than that red dress alone – singing with a mixture of barely repressed anxiety and emotion only just held in check that makes her a mesmeric, because unknowable, character. As unyielding in manner towards Golaud as she is quixotic in her relationship with Pelléas, this was an assumption that as yet lacks a degree of introspection to make it complete.

In this respect, Pelléas is a more straightforward role to undertake, and Simon Keenlyside did so with a sure sense of the adolescent recklessness that is the role’s prime motivation; drawn unwittingly into a liaison the more unsettling for its inward intensity. Until, that is, the ‘love scene’ itself, when he casts aside inhibition in singing of an impetuous ardour that fulfils his essential role in the drama.

Excellent as these two performers are, they are yet surpassed in all-round conviction by two others. Gerald Finley quite simply excels as Golaud, outwardly an inflexible and thus unsympathetic figure who undergoes the greatest emotional development of any character. Singing with keen intensity yet also a real sense of how to pace that development across each of his scenes and so over the opera as a whole, Finley invites one to share in Golaud’s misery at the fugitive nature of events as they occur, making his a portrayal of hitherto unsuspected sympathy. Robert Lloyd, meanwhile, makes of Arkel much more than an observer of Titurel-like helplessness. Bedrock to a stagnant dynasty, he is both the still-point of events as they unfold and the arbiter of other’s emotions as he realises the fateful course that these events must take. His ruminating on the essential sadness of mankind conveys an all-encompassing humanity that makes this as near-definitive an assumption as one is likely to hear.

The smaller roles are finely taken. Catherine Wyn-Rogers makes a warm and approachable Geneviève, resigned to her lot as the sole female within what, from a present-day perspective, seems a family of wilful dysfunction. Robert Gleadow is secure in his pertinent contributions as the shepherd (off-stage) and doctor, while George Longworth manages the brief but highly demanding role of Yniold – surely as telling an instance of child corruption as any in opera – with a truly impressive eloquence.

Otherwise, however, this is Simon Rattle’s performance. How good, after a run of often indifferent performances and recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, to hear him conducting the Royal Opera Orchestra with that combination of rhythmic precision and expressive flexibility (though never indulgence) which he once brought without question to the French repertoire. Dynamics are scrupulously observed but never over-emphasised, while the broad continuum of orchestral sound on which the vocal lines are carried was delineated with lucid clarity. If not always evincing the liquid intensity of Claudio Abbado in the last Royal Opera staging, his is yet as focussed and authoritative a direction as one is likely to encounter, and the ROH Orchestra responds in full measure.

It set the seal on a production that, overall, fulfils most of the opera’s musical requirements while leaving wider dramatic questions only provisionally answered. Given that the opera is Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande”, should one expect otherwise?

  • Remaining performances on 14, 16, 19, 21 & 23 May at 7 p.m. (19 May at 6.30)
  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 9 June at 6.30 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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