The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, / The vapours weep their burthen to the ground… Tennyson’s poem about the decay of all that is mortal whilst his hero, Tithonus, lives on, sprang to mind on seeing the set for this production, and felt even more apposite as the evening wore on, the characters all seeming trapped in an existence from which only death offers escape. It’s all a far cry from the castle in Ghent which inspired Maeterlinck’s Allemonde, given that its inspiration is the decay of one of Detroit’s once-splendid theatres. At times, the mouldy hangings and mossy, rotting floors recalled a production of Parsifal at Covent Garden where the colourful foam cubes were losing their fluff and some concluded that this symbolized the decay of ‘alle Kreatur.’ It’s a striking set, certainly, especially if you’re going for an interpretation of Allemonde as a monarchy in a fragile state of decline.
Musically, it was not so much a case of decay and decline as freshness and flourishing; even those far from being ‘Pelléastes’ would relish Jac van Steen’s direction of the Philharmonia Orchestra, making its house debut in what one hopes will be an ongoing collaboration. The lyrical beauty and colour in the score were brought out in such as way as to make clear the truth of Grout’s view that the music is “an iridescent veil covering the text.”
Andrea Carroll’s Mélisande is her UK debut and it’s an impressive one, phrased with plenty of power in reserve and giving the character the required sense of mystery. Brian Bannatyne-Scott’s Arkel was beautifully sung and warmly characterized, and Susan Bickley was entirely credible as Geneviève. On this occasion, Paul Gay was suffering from a throat infection so he mimed the role of Golaud while Joseph Padfield sang it from the side of the stage. Joseph graduated from the Guildhall in 2014 and this was a strikingly confident, musically phrased account in what must have been nerve-racking circumstances – the ovation he got was well deserved.
Jonathan McGovern did his best with the ungrateful part of Pelléas, and it would be a pleasure to hear his beautiful baritone in other roles. William Davies faced similar challenges as Yniold and rose to them convincingly. Dingle Yandell was a sympathetic Doctor, and Joseph Padfield’s elevation allowed William Thomas, still a student, to make his mark singing the Shepherd.
Richard Strauss called the music of Pelléas et Mélisande “incomprehensible” but Michael Boyd’s production is admirably clear and coherent, aided by Tom Piper’s designs and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting, which overcame the glorious sunshine spilling in from the gardens of this glass opera house, to create a gloomy world dominated by “La Destinée.”
For booking information click here: garsingtonopera.org/performance/pelleas-et-melisande
For our interview with Jac van Steen, click here: interview-jac-van-steen