There is usually something unsatisfactory about productions of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. The story is just plain weird: a ditsy, tiny young woman is found on the banks of a pond in the forest by a “giant” man. The next thing you know they are married, living in his ancestral castle presided over by his grandfather, the bride rapidly falls in love with her husband’s younger half-brother, and everyone dies except the ancient grandpa.
It comes from the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, which all too obviously echoes Tristan und Isolde, the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin and the Arthurian tale “Pelleas and Ettarre” in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King– except that in Tennyson, the princess Ettarre is not gamine, but wicked and callous. Tennyson’s version has almost the entire Arthurian cast of Guinivere, Percivale, Lancelot, Gawain et al., and doesn’t seem to borrow anything from the popular Tristan and Ysuelt lore. In the Victorian version, indeed, the poor, love-struck Pelleas finds Ettarre in bed with his own hero, Sir Gawain. Tennyson’s alarmingly interesting saga contributes only a little to Maeterlinck’s mash-up Symbolist play, which borrows from Tristan the theme of the princess married to the wrong, older man, and seems to take her long hair-style directly from Rapunzel.
Add to this that the score for Debussy’s opera adds (gorgeous, but long-ish) musical interludes between the five acts and twelve “tableaux,” originally to allow for set changes, and you’ve got a near-Wagnerian assault on your bottom. This is true even in the very comfortable seats provided by Garsington Opera at Wormsley. In fact, the bum-numbing effect is a little increased in Michael Boyd’s brilliant staging, because it’s performed on a spectacular permanent set by Tom Piper. It’s well worth a few pins-and-needles in the backside, though.
I’ve seen an awful lot of productions of Pelléas, including one set in the intensive care unit of a hospital; Robert Wilson’s 1997 Paris Opera staging, minimalist to the point that Dawn Upshaw’s Mélisande had short hair; and another where her hair was Rapunzel-length, and the soprano had to sing flat out on her tummy, while her hair spilled out of the window the entire height of the tower. But I’ve never seen one as lucid than Garsington’s.
How do you deal with Maeterlinck’s/Debussy’s fuzzy Symbolism? The best solution is, as here, to play it completely straight. The pond, lake, foetid pool in the dungeon of the castle is in front of us the whole time – it’s literal water, not merely symbolic. The moon/lantern/sun played with by Mélisande’s stepson, the boy Yniold (winningly sung and acted by William Davies) is an illuminated globe. The crown, ring, crossbow, arrows, épée and Mélisande’s tresses are genuine, not imagined objects. As for the light-motif, in Garsington’s transparent, open-sided auditorium we see the summer light streaming in. Despite the noise of the occasional airplane, the “temporary” opera house meant we had the accidental, but magical effect of the sun peeping out from behind a cloud just in time to make Mélisande’s wedding ring glint in its rays as she playfully tossed and caught it.
This owes a lot to Tom Piper’s set. Though (the programme tells us) based on the ruins of the wealthy magnificence of Detroit while it was the car-manufacturing centre of the world, the set is determinedly rust-belt, borrowing from artefacts such as the decayed organ screen in Detroit’s United Artists Theater. Piper’s creation is dominated by a central, slightly curving staircase, leading to Mélisande’s tower, window, and to the (stage) left, door through which the court of Allemonde make their entrances. Stage right is a set of opaque doors that can be thrown open in the last act when she longs to see the light. To me the set is reminiscent of unrestored bits of the French Quarter in New Orleans, of ruined cathedrals, and of scrap-yards. Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting has a lot to do in the post-dinner interval half of the evening, as the daylight finally faded on the day after the summer solstice – especially for a piece that ends with daylight streaming through the windows. A challenge, successfully met.
This production marks the beginning of Garsington Opera’s association with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and it gave a stunning account of itself under the baton of Jac van Steen, who is conducting Debussy’s only opera for the first time. At first I was unsettled by Michael Boyd’s direction, as, in the first ten minutes when they are on stage together, Mélisande and Golaud stand and sing to the audience, avoiding eye contact with each other. This operatic (mis)behaviour normally puts me in a bad temper. But when some of the characters finally do sing to one another, you realise that this otherwise drama-destroying posture is character-revealing, that Mélisande’s inability to look Golaud in the eye is a symptom of her instability; and his failure to look at her when singing is a measure of his egoism. At that point I relaxed and was happy to entrust my own feelings and attention to the work of the director who gave us, in this house, last season’s best-ever Eugene Onegin.
The casting is remarkable. Mélisande, Andrea Carroll is petite, darkly beautiful, and acts showing the same ease with which she sings; her voice is sumptuous, liquid or dramatic – as the score demands. Her initial entrance is so full of mystery that you are struck at once by the contradiction between her poise and her anxiety. She says to Golaud that he is a giant and, indeed, when bass-baritone Paul Gay stands up next to her, he is extraordinarily tall. I’d have said his performance was a touch wooden until, in the last scene, his anguish caused my own eyes to fill with tears. Golaud’s inflexibility was all an act, his pain is real. Boyd’s Pelléas, too, looks the part. Jonathan McGovern is a lithe, handsome baritone, with a lovely upper register, and moves almost as gracefully as Ms Carroll. And like her, we are lucky to have seen him so early in what is obviously going to be a sparkling career.
In writing his libretto and score, Debussy was careful to see that every character has his Buggins’ turn in the spotlight. Even Yniold has to sing for the better part of an entire scene near the end of the opera, and treble William Davies is superbly cast. The lad can act, he is tall (as the libretto demands), and he is in the gangly stage that makes his movements exactly right. Susan Bickley looks stately and sounds matronly, perfect for the mezzo role of Geneviève; and the bass, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, copes splendidly with the exhausting role of Arkel, even managing to make himself heard over the band where Debussy has written what seem the loudest passages for the orchestra. All the principals demonstrated unusually fine diction – I was able to hear and follow almost all the sung French.
With a uniformly excellent cast, a classy orchestra, terrific conductor and a glorious set, it seems strange to say this – but the great thing about this production was Michael Boyd’s direction. He took this slight mess of a piece, bringing a light touch to its heavy-handed symbolism, and straightened out its twisted plot, simply by insisting that (as the philosopher G.E. Moore quoted Bishop Butler) everything (light, water, air, grief, sexual attraction, cruelty) is what it is, and not something else. And try to think of another example of lyric theatre in which you weep at the wretchedness and misery of a genuinely cruel character.
Garsington Opera is, of course, not just a performance, but an occasion, like all Britain’s wonderful black tie and picnic operas – and the 90-minute interval means food (and drink). We’ve now sampled chef Michael North’s catering in all its three guises. Of the picnics, we slightly preferred the generous traditional summer picnic hamper in both its carnivore and vegetarian manifestations to the “Gourmet” version; but full marks to the restaurant. The best of the dishes we ordered was the olive oil poached fillet of halibut, cooked to just the point where the flesh flakes, but still hot when it arrived at table, plus green herb risotto and cucumber and fennel salad. Everything, though, was delicious, prepared and served with the skill and attention that knocks the many, many other meals we’ve had at country house opera restaurants into a cocked hat.