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Strength and Toughness

Independent Opera's 'Pelléas et Mélisande'


Independent Opera is nothing if not ambitious, having previously tackled a Handel opera seria and a double bill of operas by Elizabeth Maconchy, their latest offering at Sadlers Wells' Lilian Baylis Theatre [London, UK, 20 November 2008] was Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Not only does this opera provide a sophisticated challenge to the singers, but fitting the piece into a studio theatre provided a challenge to director Alessandro Talevi and designer Madeleine Boyd.

The opera was performed in a new orchestration by Stephen McNeff, which reduced Debussy's orchestra down to a group of thirty five players. Conducted by Dominic Wheeler, the musicians were embedded in the stage placed under the highest of the multilevel platforms that formed the basic set.

It might seem a ridiculous undertaking to perform this opera in a small studio with an orchestra of just thirty five. But gains seemed to balance losses. The orchestra lacked the sophisticated sheen of Debussy's rather fuller version, but McNeff's reduction was masterly and preserved the feel of the original whilst giving the score rather more presence. Similarly, hearing the singers in such close proximity meant that the whole work came over vividly, with surprising strength and toughness. What we lost was the vagueness and sophisticated imprecision of Debussy's work; everything seemed writ a little larger and more definite. It is perhaps significant that a number of audience members commented that they had never really enjoyed the opera before but found it transformed in this version.

This boldness and definiteness was emphasised by Talevi's imaginative but very deterministic production. Talevi and Boyd set the work firmly in the late 19th century. In an article in the programme book Talevi affirmed this decision saying that he felt that the opera really only made sense if viewed in terms of 19th century family structures.

The look of the piece was distinctly quirky; Boyd had provided a ramp of three platforms, highest at the back. These were surrounded by a plethora of 19th century theatrical equipment: period looking spot-lights, rails across the stage with a variety of articles pulled along by pulleys. At the opening of scene two, Arkel (Frederic Bourreau) came in a wheelchair pulled along via a pulley operated by a young lady in 19th century costume. Another young lady operated another pulley which moved a platform on which stood Genevieve (Julie Pasturaud), her substantial dress incorporating a piece of furniture with draws. This quirkiness continued throughout the opera with stray objects moving across the stage, sometimes appositely but sometimes distractingly, usually manipulated by one of four silent young ladies. The general look of the Castle had to be inferred from the fragments provided, a window, stray columns etc; it seems to have been a large glass and cast iron structure.

The whole was made most effective by Matthew Haskins' evocative lighting plot; what could have been bare spaces were rendered effective and atmospheric.

The character's costumes seemed to reflect both their status and their character. As Golaud, Andrew Foster-Williams wore a buttoned up Victorian ensemble which seemed to embody Golaud's character. Perhaps it might have been better, in the opening scene, if Boyd could have found him something a little more suitable to hunt in than a frock coat, but for the rest of the opera his costume was most apposite.

Ingrid Perruche as Mélisande
Ingrid Perruche as Mélisande

When we first saw Mélisande (Ingrid Perruche), she wore a loose, rather racy outfit, not unlike something to be seen on a show girl. But once received into Allemonde she was tamed and confined, this being reflected in her constricting period dresses. Similarly Genevieve (Julie Pasturaud) was confined and massive, having almost no independent movement of her own.

Thorbjorn Gulbrandsoy's Pelléas wore a softer suit than his elder brother and his grandfather Arkel (Frederic Bourreau) wore almost aesthetic clothes, but his infirmity and powerlessness was emphasised by his being in a wheel chair.

Perruche was a dynamic and captivating Mélisande. Though she was mysterious and perhaps a little fey, there was nothing pale and wan about her, almost as if she were a forest sprite. This feeling was amplified by the way Perruche's voice came over as being quite substantial in the relatively small space of the theatre.

A similar effect applied to Gulbrandsoy whose baritone voice developed a noticeable beat in the upper register. This was not unpleasant but did rather emphasise the tricky nature of the high baritone part. Though Gulbrandsoy's Pelléas was creditably young looking and naïve, his vocal delivery gave him a passionate impetuousness.

Gulbrandsoy and Perruche worked well together, but I am afraid that I did not quite feel there was a strong erotic charge between them. This was particularly true of the scene where Mélisande looses her hair. In this staging, she is spinning it, and Pelléas becomes entangled in a skein of her spun hair, stretching across the stage. This had the virtue of being a striking image and helped link the character to the princess in Rumpelstiltskin and other fairy-tale characters. But the scene lacked the emotional and sexual force of a traditional staging where Pelléas is enveloped in a cascade of Mélisande's hair.

It may be that Talevi's decision to stage the work in 19th century confines worked against the sexual charge that the scenes between Pelléas and Mélisande can bring. Gulbrandsoy and Perruche worked well together and seem to have developed a rapport, but unfortunately one which lacked very much sexual charge. Only at the end when they finally kiss did you feel something happening, but then this is conveyed perfectly in Debussy's orchestra.

Andrew Foster-Williams dominated the stage whenever he was present. This fine artist has done many creditable things before but I have rarely seen him give a performance of such raw power and emotional charge. As events proceeded you could feel him gradually disintegrate in an explosion of bottled up emotion, turning to anger and sexual jealousy. A couple of perceptive moments made you wonder of whom Golaud was jealous. At one point, after chiding Pelléas for his behaviour with Mélisande, Golaud then proceeds to tidy up Pelléas like a parent and almost kiss him. Then when Golaud kills Pelléas by strangling him, with Foster-Williams straddled across the prone Gulbrandsoy, Foster-Williams kissed Gulbrandsoy, perhaps like a parent and perhaps like a lover.

Julie Pasturaud and Frederic Bouurreau provided strong support as Genevieve and Arkel, though the concept of the production gave them little scope to break out of its confines. It helped of course that both were French as was Ingrid Perruche. This meant that the French diction had a high degree of authenticity and comprehensibility. Though English subtitles were provided, the cast's French was such that it could easily be followed, surely exactly what Debussy would have wanted.

Caryl Hughes was charming and convincing as the young Yniold and the scene in which Yniold sits on Golaud's shoulders and spies on Pelléas and Mélisande was truly terrifying, thanks to the fine interaction between Hughes and Foster-Williams. Vuyani Mlinde impressed in the small role of the doctor.

Under Dominic Wheeler's careful but passionate direction the orchestra gave a strong performance, making a believable case for McNeff's orchestration. The version of the opera performed was Debussy's original one, with shorter orchestral interludes. The standard version of the opera incorporates the longer interludes which Debussy provided to cover the scene changing requirements of the Opéra Comique. It seemed entirely apposite that this smaller scale version of the work should use his more concentrated, tighter first thoughts.

Though Talevi's production seemed at times rather too inventive for its own good, this was an impressive performance. Alessandro Talevi, Dominic Wheeler and their young cast provided a vivid and searingly dramatic version of Debussy's masterpiece. Unfortunately there were only three performances.

Copyright © 21 November 2008 Robert Hugill, London UK


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