A few forgivable youthful excesses aside, Alessandro Talevi’s production of Pelléas and Mélisande for Independent Opera is a hugely impressive achievement. Gone is the fairy-tale mysticism of Maeterlink’s original play, as Talevi roots his production in both the domestic and theatrical.
With a cut-out of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster and clearly-visible stage machinery cranking scenery (and people) on and off, the kingdom of Allemonde becomes the Paris around the time of the opera’s creation. Golaud is a stern, repressed gentleman plucking Mélisande off the streets in the first scene. She is no waif-like stray, though, but a robust tart-with-a-heart. She may lack other-worldliness but, as an outsider failing to fit into the confining strictures of a dysfunctional, fractured family, it’s a fresh and valid interpretation of the role.
Madeleine Boyd’s imaginative sets a series of sloping ramps creating a versatile multi-layered world seeping with gloom and decay cast continually towards the mechanisation of distant theatre practise. Windows, lamps and pillar trees zoom across the wide acting area on pulleys, as does Arkel in a strange wheelchair contraption, while Geneviéve, the shady mother figure, glides unattainably distant along the upper level. The sense is of people moving in fixed lines on their own trajectories, little connection between them.
Strength and beauty of singing is abundant, with an edgy and violent Golaud from Andrew Foster-Williams, a youthful and hugely appealing Pelléas in the Norwegian baritone Thorbjörn Gulbrandsy and a rich and expressive Mélisande (Ingrid Perruche). Completing the quartet of dark voices is a powerful Arkel by Fredric Bourreau.
A few of Talevi’s ideas don’t quite come off. The cascade of Mélisande’s hair, a string stretching the width of the stage in which Pelléas entangles himself, doesn’t quite solve the staging problem and the homo-erotic element added to the relationship between the brothers (Golaud strangles Pelléas before delivering a final kiss of death) seems something of a red-herring.
The recurring roll of a golden globe down a thunder run (another nod to the theatre of the past) for Yniold’s ball works more successfully, although the casting of a young woman (Caryl Hughes) as the boy takes away a little from the shock of Golaud’s manipulation of him. But these are minor points.
A quartet of women, shadows of Mélisande’s former street-life, haunt the action they even spirit away the submerged ring Rhinemaiden-like and come into their own at the end as they emerge from the darkness at Mélisande’s death. It’s a spooky and surprising moment, which also sees the young child emerging from the deathbed we’re all born astride a grave – and hinting towards future repetition of family troubles.
One scarcely notices the absence of a full orchestra, so well does Stephen McNeff’s orchestration for just 35 players fill the confined space of the Baylis Studio and such passionate heights does Dominic Wheeler and his band gain from the haunting score.
This spellbinding production marks the end of a four year cycle of staged works for Independent Opera, meaning that there sadly won’t be another next year. London will be a poorer place without them but the group’s work will continue through their Artist Support scheme.
A recording of last year’s Maconchy double-bill is due to be released in February further details at independentopera.com