Pelléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne: ill-conceived and frequently absurd

What a ghastly mess.

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Debussy completed only one opera but it is a masterpiece. Although Pelléas et Mélisande has always had its detractors, WH Auden to the fore, it casts a spell like no other. Beguiling in its sinuous beauty, the music shifts relentlessly, like the sea that laps against the castle of Allemande, where the drama of a woman and her two lovers, half-brothers, is enacted. Crepuscular and painterly, the opera calls to mind Eliot’s lines: “Between the motion and the act Falls the Shadow”.

Yet, for all its splendour, Pelléas et Mélisande  has never taken root as a repertory piece. Debussy knew he had composed a great opera; he also knew it would never become part of the pattern in the operatic tapestry. Productions are occasional treats, and, accordingly, savoured all the more. Those who saw Peter Stein’s 1992 version for Welsh National Opera, conducted by Pierre Boulez, will never forget it. Glyndebourne also mounted a magnificent production, by Graham Vick, in 1999 – the “crushed flowers” Pelléas, in which hundreds of red and yellow flowers lay in Perspex boxes beneath the feet of the singers. It was original, beautiful, and utterly convincing; like Peter Hall’s staging of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream it appeared to be indestructible. It should have remained in their repertory for ever, as an example of what an opera house is capable of in its highest moments.

Instead, sadly, on the centenary of the composer’s death, there is this ill-conceived and frequently absurd staging by Stefan Herheim, a Berlin-based Norwegian who brings to Sussex badges of commendation from all over Europe. As Gilbert and Sullivan had it, up goes the price of shoddy.

Debussy composed Pelléas in the final years of the 19th century, and it received its first performance in Paris in 1902. The middle part of his great triptych – perched between Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La mer – it has often been viewed through filters of symbolism and impressionism. The play on which it is based, by Maurice Maeterlinck, is certainly symbolist. As for impressionism, Debussy had no use for the term, though listeners may have.

Herheim’s grand idea is to present the organ room at Glyndebourne, close to the theatre, on stage. The funeral bier on which Pelléas lies as the evening begins turns from well, to grotto, to dining table. Pelléas is a dandy, Mélisande featureless, and Golaud a choleric, bewhiskered huntsman. His son Yniold, sung by a mezzo-soprano rather than a young boy, wears a grey uniform that brings irresistibly to mind the great comic actor Terry Scott, who used to don such clobber for his “me and my bruvver” routine. The household servants move in slow motion. Pelléas and Mélisande daub imaginary paintings on empty easels. In the most perplexing moment, Golaud buggers Yniold. It defies belief that a director, cocking half an ear to the shifting tones of Debussy’s music, could imagine the drama needed to be spelt out in such graphic terms.

Some of the acting in the fourth act, as members of the royal household shield their eyes, would be more suitable in an end-of-term revue at prep school. Did nobody think, during rehearsals: what are we supposed to be doing here, and is it absolutely necessary? What a ghastly mess.

Christopher Purves, normally such a fine singing actor, looked uncomfortable as Golaud. As Pelléas, John Chest’s voice cracked twice when it needed most to be secure. Christina Gansch sang well, and Karen Cargill poured rich cream into Geneviève, a thankless role that involves little singing and much gawping. Chloé Briot, the only native speaker in the cast, made a delightful Yniold, but this opera is not about Yniold, however much Herheim encouraged him-her to scarper about the stage. Some of the French diction was unidiomatic.

Thank goodness for Robin Ticciati, Glyndebourne’s music director, who led the London Philharmonic Orchestra through a superb performance of the extraordinary score. Ticciati allowed the music to unfold naturally, bar after gleaming bar, all the gold and silver lengths of it. If you closed your eyes when Herheim was at his most perverse, it was a wonderful evening.

Glyndebourne has known many great nights over the years. Sadly, because the house indulged the director, this is not one of them. Please, Glyndebourne, bin this wilfully eccentric production, and restore Graham Vick’s to its rightful position.

“Pelléas et Mélisande” runs until 9 August

This article appears in the 06 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit