Pelleas Et Melisande,
Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;
Playing Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Golaud, the eldest son of a wealthy family discovers a young woman (Melisande) alone and disoriented in the heart of the forest. He marries her and sails with her to his family’s castle, where his half-brother (Pelleas) and Melisande promptly (and secretly) fall in love with each other.
Both Golaud and Pelleas live in fear of the judgment of their grandfather, the powerful, increasingly blind patriarch Arkel, whose word is the law. In stark contrast to the shenanigans of this dysfunctional aristocratic family, poverty-stricken citizens die of starvation outside the castle gates.
This may sound like the overdue sequel to Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 Dogme Manifesto film Festen, but it is, in fact, the outline of Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera Pelleas Et Melisande. The work is based upon an 1892 play by the acclaimed Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, which is famed for its symbolism and mysticism.
Although the drama looks back into a mystical past (Melisande herself is a Pre-Raphaelite vision of fragile femininity), David McVicar, who directs this production for Scottish Opera, opts for a more modern setting. Designer Rae Smith’s atmospheric sets may be dominated by the French windows of the bleak, degenerating castle, but the costumes have a late 19th/early 20th-century simplicity about them.
Intriguingly, McVicar’s mind also seems to have turned towards Scandinavia. Not to Vinterberg, necessarily, but to his compatriot, the great Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, whose 1901 painting Woman In An Interior, graces the cover of the programme for this production.
Like Hammershoi’s figure, who stands with her back to us, silent and solemn in the joyless comfort of a bourgeois residence, Melisande experiences her “rescue” as an imprisonment. Indeed, her hair flowing from the window of the castle tower that is her home, her predicament is likened (less-than-subtly) to that of the mythical captive Rapunzel (whose tale was popularised by the Brothers Grimm less than a century before Maeterlinck wrote his play).
This modern relocation of the story, with the aristocrats living, not only in bleakness, but also in a state of decline, is rewarding in dramatic terms, and courageous in its consciously limited visual palette. Lighting designer Paule Constable deserves particular plaudits for his efforts to transform Smith’s less-than-versatile sets into a series of locations, including a well in the gardens of the castle and a cave by the sea.
However, in dragging the tale forward in time, McVicar has landed himself with some continuity issues. He faces them with an admirably brazen audacity. Golaud, for instance, is not furnished with a pistol, but stomps around the stage brandishing a sword like some kind of deranged Medievalist.
Even if one is happy to suspend one’s disbelief where 20th-century sword wielding is concerned, there are moments in which one’s credulity is stretched to breaking point. Pelleas and Melisande’s late-night sojourn into the cave without so much as a lamp to hand generates atmosphere at the expense of their intelligence.
A somewhat dim-witted romantic hero he may be, but Pelleas is performed with tremendous emotion by Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko. English soprano Carolyn Sampson impresses equally in a knowingly ironic playing of the distinctly pre-feminist role of Melisande (which was created in Paris in 1902 by the Aberdonian opera star Mary Garden).
Indeed, Debussy’s beautiful, assiduously illustrative score (which matches the action emotion for emotion) is enhanced by fine performances across the piece. In particular, Roland Wood’s Golaud is a compelling raging bull of a man.
Alastair Miles is superb as the wise, anguished king Arkel, while young Cedric Amamoo is astonishing, both in vocal and physical expression, as Golaud’s schoolboy son Yniold.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 5, 2017
© Mark Brown