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Selected Review


Opera

Glyndebourne: Debussy – Pelléas et Mélisande

Saul

Nobody left the premiere of the new production by Stefan Herheim on June 30th feeling ambivalent. Either they did not understand it or felt angry because it was set inside Glyndebourne itself. Many misunderstood its symbolism, or in this case, the many symbolisms, taking things at face value rather than for what they were supposed to mean. This was a challenge even for somebody very much accustomed to seeing complicated productions in Germany. But it was worth it once the path was found, and there it was, a rich dramatic vein full of surprises.

Herheim is not a regiesseur who does opera as a routine, he thinks and thinks and justifies his actions. It is quite difficult at times to apprehend these justifications, but with patience and the right attitude it can be done. Hence, this is not Pelléas et Mélisande, but Golaud sees Pelléas et Mélisande through his own eyes and tries to make sense, his own sense. Once this is accepted one enters a different world, the characters are not as we normally see them but acquire hardness, limitations, erotic phantasies and terrible prejudices, created by the febrile imagination of a man, Golaud, who is himself limited, eaten by his own shortcomings. Both Pelléas and Mélisande are much more vivaceous than usual, more direct and less mysterious, they have humour, they move a lot and play in a relaxed way, the traumas are on the other side. Golaud sees them with severe eyes, each movement acquires a meaning which is quite different from reality.

At one stage Pelléas is imagined as an artist who paints Mélisande on her balcony scene, Golaud appears and violently sends Pelléas away and discovers that he has painted her naked. He does not understand himself what he is seeing, he is no artist, but he sees what he sees and cannot help it. At another stage when the boy Yniold talks about the sheep a Christ like figure appears on the same balcony carrying a lamb on his/her shoulders, obviously a reference to God is our Shepherd? And is Golaud actually raping his own son as he looks into Mèlisande’s room or is this a phantasy? A replica of what he sees in his mind? I am inclined to believe the second version. This is but one of the many symbolisms, I am sure I missed many others, but the main idea was grasped and it proved reassuringly a pleasant task. One should go to the theatre to think, especially if the work has not been damaged. Seen in this manner this show becomes a fascinating exercise. Golaud is not a bad person, just limited, he does not understand what he sees and of course, he judges, like all of us. Mostly he judges wrong, but he does not know it and he is confused by what he himself does. He is like a ghost and it is just possible that Herheim, placing the action in Glyndebourne’s Organ Room is playing a trick on us. As we all know this is a room full of memories of the past, through which so many great artists have passed, and maybe, just maybe, these characters are also like that, as in Harry Potter they still mix with us although we do not see them there, only on stage. And when at the very end of the opera the side doors open on the set allowing some sunshine in, actors representing us enter the Organ Room on stage, the ghosts have gone....but have they?

With a proposal like this special singers were needed, singers who would adapt to this vision without fear, and there were such singers, headed by the monumental Christopher Purves, who threw himself head on into this complex Golaud with a dark, enervating, perfectly articulated voice. Never have I seen such a character so minutely detailed and so full of fear of the unknown and of what he is unable to understand. Purves’s creation ranks up there with the best ever. John Chest was the youthful Pelléas, an artist waiting to develop, playful, with a lyrical voice, a man discovering that the world is nice with the sweet voiced Christina Gansch, an active and beautiful Mélisande who moved like a butterfly in a flower garden, here and there without aim. In this production hers is a faithful character but also looking to open herself to beauty, something of which Golaud is afraid. Karen Cargill was the motherly Geneviève with a rich warm voice and Richard Wiegold sang Arkel from the side, with a firm and lugubrious tone, whilst the indisposed Brindley Sherratt acted it on stage. This ultracomplex production needed a clear headed conductor and Robin Ticciati provided exactly that, the sounds emanating from the pit were not just delicate but soft, seeming individually tailored for each moment. The London Philharmonic Orchestra gave it all for a special opera amidst the sunbathed gardens of this unique festival. I am sure that many spirits of singers of the past were meandering the gardens as we were enjoying our picnics.

Eduardo Benarroch

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