Only the superb musical direction under Simon Rattle prevents the Royal Opera’s new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande from being an unmitigated disaster. First the good news. The orchestra of the Royal Opera play Debussy’s hauntingly mesmeric score under the inspired baton of Sir Simon Rattle with precision and languidity, and in the process conjures up an orchestral palette as vibrant as it is kaleidoscopic.
Because of its subtlety and consistent understatement, Pelléas is a very difficult opera to bring off in the theatre, yet Rattle indelibly makes his mark on every bar, and for that we should be grateful, otherwise this evening would have sunk into ignominy for the Royal Opera.
The production, if you can call it that, was imported from last year’s Salzburg Festival where it received a critical drubbing. It’s not hard to see why, as this was more of a non-production of Pelléas et Mélisande. Indeed it had all the trappings of a concert performance by any other name. I would like to be able to explain the whole melee in great detail but the whole staging left me flummoxed and if you have all the protagonists dressed in the same ‘clown’ outfits from start to finish (apart from Mélisande who sports a red evening dress) surrounded by dreary conceptual ‘scenery’ then Pelléas et Mélisande turns into what seems like a very, very long and turgid evening in the opera house.
Stanislas Nordey‘s production managed to sap the lifeblood out of this wonderful work and present each scene as a tableau of navel-gazing philosophising where all emotions become internalised – and in doing this turned all the singers into mere ciphers.
In the famous scene where Mélisande stands at her bedroom window and lets her hair down, she stands in the scenery (Emmanuel Clolus) surrounded by dozens of dresses, identical to the one she is wearing. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.
And why Pelléas, Golaud, Arkel, Genevieve and Yniold all wear the same Pierrot/clown outfit is beyond me. Enough as far as I’m concerned, this wasn’t an opera production at all. Time and time again I hankered after Richard Jones’ gut-wrenching Opera North/ENO staging or Peter Stein’s epoch-making production for the Welsh National Opera, as I sat through this mindless farrago at the Royal Opera.
In the circumstances it was nigh impossible for any of the singers to project any sense of character across the footlights, so they are to be lauded for their considerable efforts.
The finest singing of the evening came from Gerald Finley as Golaud, who managed to put across all the inner torment and jealousy of the character by voice alone, which was no mean feat. Angelika Kirchschlager sang sensuously as Melisande but Simon Keenlyside sounded out of sorts as Pelléas but then can you blame him? Young George Longworth was the best Yniold I’ve ever seen, and there was reliable support from the veteran bass Robert Lloyd as Arkel. The audience cheered the singers and conductor to the rafters, and booed the production team. A discerning audience if ever I heard one.