The Scottish Opera’s new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is an atmospheric, engaging work which stays true to the spirit of its material and allows the design, the performances – and most importantly – the music, to speak for themselves. A romance set to the glorious creations of Debussy, this opera is more emotion-centric than flamboyant, in which we follow the love triangle between Mélisande, Pelléas and Prince Golaud.
There is a sense of slow-building chemistry between Andrei Bondarenko’s Pelléas and Carolyn Sampson’s Mélisande, and their movements as well as their voices blend well together. Sampson’s expressiveness lends a particular power to the conflicted and often subdued emotions required of the role. Also excellent is the bass Alastair Miles, who plays the role of Arkel with a perfect mix of gentlemanly self-assurance and the reflective compassion that often comes with age. It is Roland Wood as Golaud, however, who arguably gives the standout performance of the production. His depressive presence is the central force within the play, and seems to carry with it, through Golaud’s placements within the environments, the weighty symbolism of fate itself.
Another noteworthy feature of the production is the set design and the lighting, which is the product of excellent work by Rae Smith and Paule Constable.The use of sparsely decorated spaces and impressionistic lighting, which powerfully emulates the streaming of sunlight through windows, the shift from day to night, and the effects of water, helps to bring out the nuances of Debussy’s music. Such staging perfectly articulates the symbolic intentions of Debussy’s music. In one scene, for instance, Yniold (played by Thomas John) appears alone onstage, in a small space that is framed by the curtains; eventually, however, the frame widens, revealing a sinister Golaud who has been sitting silently in the background.
The pace slackens a bit in a drawn-out scene in which Golaud and Yniold have a discussion and attempt to spy on Mélisande, which may be the only potential weakness on display here; this is perhaps due, however, to the structure of the opera itself rather than any shortcoming on the part of the Scottish Opera.
These days, it is all too easy to modernise an operatic production in order to trigger new reactions to classic works. It is, thus, worth appreciating how David McVicar has, in essence, placed Debussy’s work in its original historical context, avoiding blatant anachronism and taking a fittingly subtle approach to his direction of the material.
By the time we come to the end of a production that so expertly blends all of its various elements together, it is difficult to be left with a feeling of anything but respect and admiration for the efforts that have brought Debussy’s many shades of meaning to life. The performance was a superb example of opera, for both newcomers and those very well acquainted with it.
Pelléas et Mélisande
Photo credit: The Scottish Opera