English Touring Opera’s Pelléas et Mélisande feels pared down in every way. It utilises a shortened version of the opera with reduced orchestral forces, while James Conway’s production employs a single, albeit highly flexible, set. It works well in its reduced form, partly because this ‘chamber version’ of the score, arranged by Annelies Van Parys, feels sublime, and partly because the staging proves extremely adept at exploring many of the opera’s themes.
The set’s minimalist feel and sharp angles create a chic space that, if not accurately representing the style of 1902 when the opera premiered, conveys a general sense of French decadence at the start of the twentieth century. Water is a key theme of the work (there are references to stagnant waters and stormy seas), and here projections create rippling effects across the turquoise walls.
The set is also used to highlight the clash between nature and society for Arkel repeatedly appears behind a ‘gauze’ screen so that his castle, decked out in red, contrasts markedly with everything around it. On other occasions the lighting alters to reveal how beneath the fluid ripples, the walls are actually decorated with a rather conventional ‘Paisley’ pattern.
Another theme of the opera, and specifically Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play upon which it is based, is the cycle that takes place from calm to discord to the renewal of order. This is signified in the use of props for when Golaud initially meets Mélisande the pool is portrayed as a stylishly curved bowl. In contrast, the fountain into which Mélisande drops her ring is the open drawer of an upturned and battered filing cabinet. Later on other drawers in this signify the castle vaults, but at the end the original bowl appears once more as the cradle for Mélisande’s baby.
Captions on the surtitle screens describe the setting for each scene (a few of which are cut entirely in this version). For some operas this could feel jarring because telling rather than showing us where we are is hardly conducive to making us believe in what we see before us. In this context, however, it works because Pelléas et Mélisande is not predominantly plot-driven, but rather provides a ‘metaphysical’ exploration into various themes associated with change. As such, it feels as if we are peering through a series of windows at pivotal moments during an ongoing cycle.
The reduced orchestral forces introduce an elegance and refinement to the score that make it seem vaguely reminiscent of Debussy’s chamber music, and conductor Jonathan Berman ensures a high degree of precision. Stephan Loges is excellent as Golaud, bringing a pleasing combination of lightness and depth to his bass-baritone, and making the character seem to act out more out of sorrow than anger. Jonathan McGovern proves effective as his half-brother Pelléas with his higher baritone voice helping to give him a more youthful and less weary disposition. Susanna Hurrell[‘s silvery soprano is ideal for Mélisande, and at the end she genuinely gives the impression of one whose serenity is symptomatic of really not understanding what is happening. Michael Druiett is a superbly firm voiced Arkel and Helen Johnson an engaging Geneviève, while Lauren Zolezzi as Yniold is possessed of a very sweet soprano.
English Touring Opera will also perform Werther at the Britten Theatre on 2 and 8 October and The Tales of Hoffmann on 9 and 10 October. Following this all three productions will continue to tour the country. For full details of venues and dates visit the English Touring Opera website.