Friday 23 October 2015

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (ETO, 2015 - Buxton)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

English Touring Opera, 2015

Jonathan Berman, Annelies van Parys, James Conway, Jonathan McGovern, Susanna Hurrell, Stephan Loges, Michael Druiett, Helen Johnson, Lauren Zolezzi

English Touring Opera, Buxton - 16 October 2015

Trying to pin down the symbolism and floating musical ambiguity of Pelléas et Mélisande to any one meaning or interpretation would seem to be a pointless exercise, yet it's a choice that any director who stages the work has to make. Even if one particular interpretation is settled on or a single theme is drawn upon, the work tends to remain elusive and take on an unintended meaning and mysterious direction of its own. If Pelléas et Mélisande can be pinned down to just one broad theme however, it's the one that James Conway develops here in the English Touring Opera's 2015 production in its most abstract form. It's all about love.

That's a strong theme, particularly when it's explored in terms of love inspired by unspeakable passions that drives one to unimaginable actions, and it links in well with the two other very different French operas in the ETO's Autumn 2015 touring programme, Tales of Hoffmann and Werther. The nature of that overpowering love is extreme in all of those works, but in the symbolic nature of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande it can be seen as all-encompassing. The sea, a fountain, water, a ship a cavern, a rock, a tower, a ring, a crown - all of these things can be used to express different facets and aspects of that single theme of love in all its manifestations and the feelings associated with it.

James Conway takes a holistic approach to the work, its themes, its symbols, its characters, its music and its language in a way that supports this theme as well as brings out the other more ambiguous and indefinable qualities of the work that can't quite be expressed in words. The words are suggestive but the intentions are hidden or kept suppressed, particularly in regard to the feelings that Pelléas and Mélisande have for each other, but directorial choices can be imposed on the reading of them. Conway doesn't attempt anything too radical, adopting a position certainly, but crucially allowing some of the ambiguity to remain.

Mélisande is, or appears to be, a total innocent here, but also a figure who has a hidden past that may prevent her from being totally open to her own feelings. Pelléas however knows that the games they play have more of an illicit edge, hesitatingly drawn by her mysterious allure but ultimately unable to resist. Whether he really believes them to be playing what he angrily and dismissively calls a 'jeux d'enfants', Golaud undoubtedly reads too much into it, his suspicions and jealousy fuelled by his own imagination. The key to establishing this or any interpretation successfully is in how it is projected onto the outside world.

The ETO's staging is uncomplicated and open to the symbolism of the drama, contrasting the interiors and exteriors of the castle with the internal emotional world of the characters and their external manifestations. A recessed room behind a gauze screen separates the formal superficial exchanges in the castle of Allemonde from the rather more abstract uncertainties of the mysterious light and colour of the world outside. The only real licence that Conway's production takes with the symbolism is what looks like an overturned filing cabinet that holds all those mysteries buried within it. What spills out of it in terms of where love takes us, is Golaud's inner world, his disturbed mentality coming to dominate and extend out into the world to colour everything else.

With regard to what is unexpressed and inexpressible, much of the mystery and ambiguity in Pelléas et Mélisande and everything that binds it together can be found in Debussy's musical score. Flitting between the worlds of the characters is difficult enough, but it can be hugely rewarding when it integrates and binds itself to the music. The musical interpretation can open up other levels, tones and suggestion far beyond what the words say and even what the actions show, and that is wholly the case here. Arranged by Annelies van Parys for a small chamber-sized orchestra, Debussy's score is still a thing of wonder, depth and mystery, and it's brought out wonderfully under the baton of Jonathan Berman.

The arrangement is familiar but the lightness of the touch dispels the more Wagnerian influences and highlights the power of the notes and the melodies themselves to mark the changes of mood. The tone slips between wonder, anger, sadness, melancholy, and allows them to co-exist. There are one or two minor adjustments, including the use of dialogue cut from the performing edition of the work, reinstated here unaccompanied to excellent effect. The use and flow of the French language is essential here too, and it was delivered with great clarity of diction and appropriate interpretation by all the performers.

Stephan Loges made the greatest impression as Golaud in a production that assumed his outlook as the dominant one, but Jonathan McGovern and Susanna Hurrell's softer, lyrical voices were also ideally suited to the personalities of Pelléas and Mélisande. Helen Johnson's fine singing made sure that the contribution of Geneviève also has relevance to the work as a whole, and Michael Druiett was suitably grave as the preoccupied Arkel, if not quite sonorous enough in the bass register. Yniold was sung wonderfully by Lauren Zolezzi, who also made a real contribution as Sophie in the ETO's Werther on this tour.

Links: English Touring Opera