Pelléas et Mélisande at WNO

Having had a very busy working birthday it was nice to take off to Cardiff for the weekend for a delayed treat. For me the cultural event of the weekend in the Welsh capital was neither One Direction nor the Manic Street Preachers, both which bands were playing there that weekend. It wasn’t even the Ladyboys of Bangkok, which I would definitely have preferred to either of the former acts. No, it was an evening at the Wales Millennium Centre for a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy.

This was an opera that was quite new to me, though I did know that the previous production of this work by Welsh National Opera was back in 1992 and the conductor was none other than Pierre Boulez. There is a famous recording of the piece on Deutsche Grammaphon, so the bar was set rather high for the new production. I don’t often agree with opera reviews so don’t usually read them before I go in case they put me off, but I did read the review in the Guardian of the opening night (May 31st) performance of this one as I was sent it by a friend. As it turns out there’s little I can add to George Hall’s review. It was absolutely magnificent.

The plot of Pelléas et Mélisande is, on one level, fairly simple. Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. She becomes his wife and goes to live with him in the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. After a while, though, Mélisande gets the hots for Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas and he reciprocates her feelings. Eventually Golaud starts to suspect that there’s something going and goes out of his way to find out how far the relationship has developed. He even gets his own child, Yniold, to spy on the couple. Since it’s all getting a bit weird, Pelléas decides to leave the castle but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time before he departs. Golaud gatecrashes the meeting and kills Pelléas in a jealous rage. Mélisande eventually dies too, but not until it is revealed that she has given birth to a daughter. Golaud never really finds out “the truth”, i.e. whether Pelléas and Mélisande ever consummated their love for each other.

But of course the plot tells only part of the story. This opera is based on the symbolist play of the same title by Maurice Maeterlinck. It’s an essential component of the symbolist manifesto that art should try to represent absolute truths that can only be expressed indirectly. Consequently very little in Pelléas et Mélisande is quite what it seems on the surface. The characters are enigmatic, especially Mélisande, and the boundary between reality and imagination is often blurred to such an extent that it takes on the quality of a dream.

That may all seem very confusing, but what binds it all together is Debussy’s music which was a revelation to me: all the sensuality I associate with his music was there, but it’s far darker and more mysterious than I’d imagined in my mind’s ear before the show. I have to say that the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs was absolutely magnificent. This was probably the best I’ve ever heard them play – and they’ve been excellent many times I’ve heard them. They obviously rose magnificently to the challenge set by Pierre Boulez. As for the singers, I don’t think there were any weak links at all but for me the pick of them was Rebecca Bottone in the “trouser role” of the young boy, Yniold. She sang and acted quite beautifully.

I didn’t realise straightaway, but the set was based on the same metallic structure used for the WNO production of Lulu, although in this case it wasn’t festooned with body parts, although there was a pool of water around it. Come to think of it, there is quite a lot in common between the characters of Lulu and Mélisande, which may be why they did it that way. Or it might just have been to save money. Anyway, cylindrical structure in the centre of the stage was used very cleverly indeed. At one time it represented a tower, at another a well, and even when it wasn’t being used it added a touch of steampunk to the look.

I also have to mention the staging of the final scene. Mélisande’s death was depicted most movingly, wrapped in black scarves by maidservants. At the end of the performance, the rest of the cast are escorted offstage by a representation of death there’s a beautiful image of rebirth as a hand rises defiantly from a white shroud.

Congratulations to Welsh National Opera on this production. I don’t think I’m often given to exaggeration but I’d call this one a triumph!

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