Instead of benign midsummer light and warmth, Gothic clouds scudding across louring skies would have been more appropriate for Garsington Opera’s new production of Debussy’s setting of Maeterlinck’s symbolist tragedy, in which the enigmatic Mélisande, married to Golaud, embarks on a deadly relationship with his much-younger half-brother Pelléas.
Michael Boyd’s and designer Tom Piper’s staging reverts to a murky Pre-Raphaelite eroticism, leaving the audience to make its own way through the opera’s dense thicket of resonances, rather than manipulating them with a particular psycho-agenda. For all that, though, this staging is very subversive, even though Piper’s designs zoom in on the story’s fairy-tale timelessness. His fixed set is a romantically ruined gold and blue Gothic castle, the sort of secret place any red-blooded prince would penetrate to claim his Sleeping Beauty – except that her saviour here is sad, conflicted Golaud – and our first sight of Mélisande is as a princess of ye olden tymes, with a crown and a long train, whose reluctance to leave the well where she lost her crown to follow Golaud the huntsman, suggests from the start a well-developed death wish. The set deals efficiently with the castle’s various secret places, there is a grand staircase for some impressive entries, and the occasional bursts of court activity under King Arkel, grandfather to Pelléas and Golaud and ruler of the kingdom of Allemonde, remind us of the story’s context of courtly love and misery.
Boyd has hugely expanded the role of Yniold, Golaud’s young son, whose main purpose is usually just to spy on Pelléas and Mélisande at his father’s command. Here, the boy is present much of the time, his games with an illuminated ball making him a Lucifer lighting the way for those who would see, witnessing adult things he shouldn’t and allocated the strangest event, when he salvages Mélisande’s crown and long muddy train from the well. The implications for his future are distressingly clear.
Boyd treads a fine line between realism and poetic evasiveness and is very successful in his presentation of the lovers as passive vehicles of irresistible desire. No wonder Golaud is out of his depth – any dealings with this Mélisande would be like trying the nail the proverbial jelly to the wall. For those in thrall to the opera’s ambiguity and raw passion, this production has much to offer, although I sometimes wonder whether its darkness is ideal for summer opera – a postprandial couple sitting behind me were audibly bored rigid.
Making her UK debut, the American soprano Andrea Carroll’s strong-voiced Mélisande is the more knowing of the lovers, in that she is sure of her preference. Jonathan McGovern, an experienced Pelléas, doesn’t quite have that expressive twang of a French baryton-martin, but his sinuous voice easily covers the role’s high range, and he looks suitably vulnerable and overwhelmed. The scene where he caresses Mélisande’s long hair may not be the last word in eroticism, but the singing more than covered the cracks. Pelléas’s full-throttle declaration of love, just before he is killed by Golaud – tellingly anticipated in the orchestra – comes across as the focal point of the opera.
Paul Gay’s Golaud is a superb display of anguish, suspicion and violence, his desolation in Mélisande’s death-scene harrowing, and his fatherly relationship to Pelléas an interesting expansion on the story’s complicated family-tree. The nearly blind King Arkel, intensely sung by Brian Bannatyne-Scott, dodders his impotent way through the tragedy, and Susan Bickley enhances Geneviève’s sympathetic gravitas. William Davies is the confident, exploited Yniold, and there’s an elegantly sung Doctor from Dingle Yandell.
Garsington Opera has secured a five-year partnership with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the first outing of which is this Pelléas. Under Jac van Steen, the Philharmonia musicians surpassed themselves in the beauties of Debussy’s score, explaining the truths that the characters avoid so successfully, and saturating the music with a sure French sensibility.