Dreamland empire: Pelléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne
Pelléas et Mélisande
Stalls C27, £30 (under-30s)
6 August 2018
There are two big fuck-yous in Stefan Herheim’s production of Pelléas et Mélisande which I think must be intentional, even if well-meant. The first one I’m on-board with: not only do I think it’s quite a sound piece of directorial insight to have Golaud’s abuse of his son nightmarishly transformed into a real and horrible dream abuse of Yniold who might be Mélisande who might even be Pelléas, I also agree that it’s a bit amusing to send the Glyndebourne audience out into our long interval with that parting image burned on our retinas.
The second one riled me possibly just as it was supposed to, which I find much more annoying because I think it obscures what the production had been doing so well. The events have been set in a dreamscape version of Glyndebourne’s organ room, presumably drawing on some esoteric part of Glyndebourne’s history as well, and as the story of Pelléas et Mélisande comes to a close some new, silent figures emerge onto the stage and stare I felt accusingly into the audience. Their swanky clothes and air of entitlement can mean only one thing: they are Glyndebourne audience members! Herheim confronts us with ourselves and our vacuous presence! Bloody hell.
I’ve been told I’m being over-sensitive about the ending, and that these figures are meant not as an accusation of our collective blundering inanity but merely a reminder that when we are in historic places we cannot possibly be alive to all of the drama the things around us may have seen. Whatever. Whichever way you cut it it’s not an original idea and emphasizes what is inconsequential about the production – that it is set in Glyndebourne – over what it does so terrifically, which is bake Maeterlinck’s heady oneiric mystery into the fabric of the events themselves, just as it is in Debussy’s music.
Ah, and the music is simply wonderful. I’ve not always been convinced by Robin Ticciati but his Pelléas is a heavenly thing, suffused with a heavy sleep-filled languor, a delicious opium that robs the senses and steals you away on rolls of suffocating smoke. There is an abandon to his interpretation, a freedom that somehow becomes an elusive vagueness that is always fluid, always shifting. This is how this score should be played.
Some of the cast is just as definitive. Christina Gansch’s Mélisande at first surprised me, so husky in the lower parts of the range and so contained at the top, but the classiness of her singing is intoxicating, completely a part of the flowing orchestral fabric. John Chest is just as enchanting as Pelléas, his rich, strong voice at once light-filled and sorrowfully darkening. In the smaller roles Karen Cargill made my heart stop as Geneviève; I think I must never have heard the role sung so on pitch and with such precision of tone, seeming to unlock the music around her.
I feel somewhat more circumspect about Chistopher Purves’s Golaud. It might just be the Barbara Hannigan effect, that I’ve got so used to seeing him do what he so excellently does that it begins to seem like a gimmick. The easy resonance of his voice, his almost unthinking transitions from speech into song and back again thrilled me at the start of Pelléas but soon began to annoy me; doesn’t he have any other tricks? I think I’m being unfair, and it certainly didn’t help that he seemed to be made up to look like a past-it Debussy (another fuck-you from Herheim? I can’t tell).
The cast and orchestra make this an epochal Pelléas and possibly no production could match the glory of the music. None that I’ve seen, anyway. Where Herheim succeeds – finding violence and control in the opera’s motifs of sight and seeing; making the scene of Mélisande’s tumbling hair Golaud’s dream of anguished longing; suggesting Pelléas as Golaud’s distorted mirror image and a vehicle for his desires – he succeeds brilliantly. And though I’m sad that the interior setting closes down a lot of the opera’s evocation of nature, I think what he does with the inferiority of a dream that can’t be escaped from makes up in large part for what is lost. I just wish he’d given us a closing image that was less annoying.