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The best opera productions are always the ones in the mind’s eye. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s symbolist opera from the turn of the past century – a work of shadowy emotions and elusive characters which leaves everything that really matters to the imagination.

Productions of this tricky opera have come and gone fleetingly at the Royal Opera in the past 50 years. This latest is a co-production with the Salzburg Easter Festival, where it originated last year. The festival’s artistic director is conductor Simon Rattle and, in wanting to lure him back to Covent Garden, the Royal Opera was presumably obliged to take Stanislas Nordey’s mind-numbingly vacant production as well. That seems to be the science of co-productions – if you want the star, you get the black hole as part of the package.

If ever there was a performance to enjoy with one’s eyes shut, this is it. Seizing on the principle that Maeterlinck’s play is grounded in symbols, Nordey has made a selection of symbolic images to wave in front of our noses. As each new scene begins, an enormous black box is trundled around the stage and opened up to reveal multiple examples of his chosen symbol – bloodstained pillows, hand-written letters, or the giant names “Pélleas” and “Mélisande”. What a bore these images are – didactic when they should be suggestive, ugly when they should be beautiful.

Almost nothing that is seen on stage is worth blinking for. Let loose in the wardrobe department, costume designer Raoul Fernandez has made straight for the drawer labelled “commedia dell’arte” and dressed everyone except Mélisande in ludicrous white outfits like Pierrot. A shame the opera is not a comedy.

So, just lean back, close your eyes and listen. There have not been many native French singers in the opera at Covent Garden recently (or anywhere else, come to that) but this cast brings the poetry to life as inspiringly as any I have heard. The outstanding performer, at least in vocal terms, is Gerald Finley as Golaud. When he is singing there is no need to look up at the surtitles, as every word is crystal clear, sung with meaning and on a stream of beautiful, liquid tone.

As his younger brother Pelléas, Simon Keenlyside is less verbally clear but gets beneath the skin of the character to find a strange layer of immaturity and preciousness. (I wondered if he and Finley might have been cast round the other way, with the youthful-sounding Finley as Pelléas and Keenlyside bringing his dramatic insight to the murky depths of Golaud.)

In the role of Mélisande, Angelika Kirchschlager works hard to put across the production’s idea of her character – Fernandez’s flame-red dress and Nordey’s expressionist acting style mark her out as a destructive sexual force, like another Lulu – but the idea is hard to justify. Robert Lloyd makes a most sensitively sung Arkel; Catherine Wyn-Rogers sings well but looks too young to be Geneviève; and there was another outstanding performance from George Longworth, one of the two boy trebles sharing the role of Yniold.

Rattle accompanied them all with constant care, drawing first-class playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra. We already know he can be an inspired conductor of the final act of Wagner’s Parsifal, from which so much of Pelléas is derived, and the same deep gut feeling stirs here – not bright and clear music-making, as Debussy probably intended, but marvellously atmospheric. Top marks for the musical performance but on this Eurovision Song Contest weekend the vote for the production has to be “nul point”.
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