This work is described as a lyric drama rather than an opera. It has a unique style and has been acclaimed as one of the seminal works of 20th century music. It is also is extremely hard work. You can listen to the music, you can understand the words that are being sung, you can see the set and the protagonists and admire the beauty of it all, but still wonder what on earth is going on and quite what the point of it all is.
The story itself is bizarre. Golaud discovers the distraught Mélisande weeping in the forest, persuades her to follow him and later marries her without managing to find out any more about her other than her name. He brings her home to the castle of his grandfather King Arkel and mother Genevieve, and his half-brother Pelléas, with whom she appears to fall in love. The loss of her wedding ring arouses Golaud’s suspicions and he sets his little son Yniold to spy on the pair.
The rest of the story is devoted to their affair and Golaud’s jealousy ending fatally for Pelléas and Mélisande – who dies telling Golaud she has done nothing to be ashamed of.
There were no less than 13 changes of scenery in Debussy’s original production in 1902. Graham Vick’s production of Pelléas et Mélisande is revived for the Tour by Daniel Farncombe, who makes use of the same set for all five Acts. Whereas pictures of Debussy’s original production fix the action in a Pre- Raphaelite, Arthurian world, Paul Brown’s extraordinary design, with lighting by Jon Stevens, intensifies the brooding, atmospheric score, placing it in an Edwardian fin-de-siècle drawing room, with tarnished gilt panelled walls and an undulating transparent perspex floor, covering row upon row of red and yellow chrysanthemums.
Farncombe does however move the furniture around – 13 times – to create scenes in the imagination – an enormous Chinese vase, a lacquered screen, a painting on an artist’s easel. But why bother? We are still left wondering whether there is any additional significance in why the dining chairs have been shifted from one side of the room to the other, or a solitary armchair has been moved upstage. There is quite enough to occupy the audience in working out exactly what Debussy intended by his reworking of Maeterlinck’s play into his own libretto for this complex and ambiguous psychological drama, without having to worry about the director and designer adding several extra layers of disconcerting symbolism of their own.
Paradoxically this is an excellent musical and dramatic performance. Andrew Slater as Golaud is powerful and persuasive as the guilt-ridden husband tormented by jealousy. Tove Dahlberg makes her Glyndebourne debut as Mélisande, capturing the enigmatic innocence and vulnerability essential to the part with purity of singing, delivering the text faultlessly.
Kevin Greenlaw as a lyrically Byronic Pelléas makes his British operatic debut, creating a fatal erotic noose around his throat from Melisande’s cascading golden hair. Christian Treguier as Arkel brings gravity as the wise old king, although even he is not immune to the spell of youth cast by Mélisande, forcing his attentions on her in Act IV. David Stark sings with confidence as Yniold.
While the characters orbit each other around the semi-circular set describing events and their half-understood emotions, the recitative seems an introspective form of communication with the audience, rather than with each other. Responses to questions asked are simply more questions or complete non-sequiturs and surreal conversations appear to take place on two or more subjects simultaneously.
Binding all together, however, is Pascal Rolphé who conducts a dramatic account of this beautifully impressionist, yet essentially ephemeral score – which realises the surrealism yet is quickly forgotten, while the imagery lingers on.