sat 22/06/2024

Prom 5, Pelléas et Mélisande, Glyndebourne review - for the ears, not the eyes | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 5, Pelléas et Mélisande, Glyndebourne review - for the ears, not the eyes

Prom 5, Pelléas et Mélisande, Glyndebourne review - for the ears, not the eyes

Semi-staged Debussy is visually confused, musically mostly excellent

Christina Gansch, Christopher Purves and John Chest: disrupted family linesBBC/Chris Christodoulou

What a fabulous score Pelléas et Mélisande is, and what a joy to be able to hear it in a concert performance without the distraction of some over-sophisticated director’s self-communings. Well, if only.

What last night’s Prom in fact served up was a kind of abstract of Stefan Herheim’s Glyndebourne production, semi-staged by Sinéad O’Neill without its organ-room setting and all that that entailed, but with a great deal of its dramaturgical clutter still intact. 

This was emphatically a performance for the radio. I was in the Albert Hall, but I suspect the orchestral playing will have sounded about as technically and musically refined over the air as one could possibly wish, and even in the hall – if you could shut your eyes (and occasionally ears) to the downstage nonsense – the orchestral sound, under Robin Ticciati, was as nearly perfect as anything I’ve heard in these profound spaces for a very long time. The curious thing about this is that Debussy only orchestrated the opera – or at least only wrote the orchestration down – some years after the music itself was completed. Yet the whole score – voices and orchestra – sounds like a single, completely integrated concept, imagined all of a piece, and of an expressive subtlety and precision that perhaps only Mozart at his best ever surpassed.

The director needs to clarify these things, not obscure themDavid Nice has already done the necessary Beckmesser job on Herheim’s dark fantasies, whose essence seems to survive in O’Neill’s actually somewhat more than semi staging. If these ideas – the incessant comings and goings of assorted servants, the seemingly irrelevant paintings and empty easels, Yniold’s sudden transgendering in his/her scene with Golaud, Golaud’s physical presence, acknowledged by Mélisande, throughout the final love scene, Pelléas’s reappearance as a walking corpse and Mélisande’s love-death in the final scene: if these ideas were baffling to a Glyndebourne audience who at least had the full context, imagine what any Prommer not acquainted with this marvellous and essentially lucid work might make of them. 

One even asked me in the interval what Yniold’s sex change with skirt and long hair meant. I struggled: well, hair is something of a motif (isn’t it?); Yniold is a boy played by a girl (isn’t he – well actually not originally, but let that pass). The worst of all this is that it blocks out the real significance of the scene, Golaud punishing his first wife (Yniold’s dead mother) for his failure with his second. Among other things Pelléas (like its near contemporary, Janacek’s Jenufa) is about disrupted family lines. The director needs to clarify these things, not obscure them.Prom 5, Pelléas et Mélisande, GlyndebourneVocally, though, the cast did well. I liked the Pelléas, John Chest, somewhat more than David Nice did, Christina Gansch’s Mélisande perhaps a fraction less. Chest may have profited from the acoustic space, but I thought his voice good for the part: a baritone slightly biased towards the top (this is said to have been Debussy’s own range, though heaven knows what his singing was like). Gansch also suits this music very nicely, but overacted, turning Mélisande into a nonstop Rossetti mobile, with waving body, flailing arms, and not much mystery.

Christopher Purves will have sounded a strong Golaud on the airwaves, but was damaged onstage by his crusty, too-elderly image and too coarse persona. Golaud is a plain man but not a bad one, mystified by Mélisande but violent towards her only when her uncommunicativeness finally unhinges him.

The Arkel, Brindley Sherratt, and the Geneviève, Karen Cargill (pictured above with John Chest), were strong by any standards, and Chloé Briot was a sound Yniold, though a boy is really needed, however hard to find. But the real heroes of the evening were unquestionably Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Whenever I found my irritation with the stage boiling over, I took refuge in the orchestra and the conducting and they never let me down.


This performance also lacked another traditional element of Proms opera performances: a libretto in the programme-book. Instead there were projected surtitles - which meant that, to follow the action, you had to look (more or less) in the direction of the stage. Paying attention where it most belonged, to the orchestra, was very difficult except for the orchestral interludes as a result. As the surtitles were only in English, it also meant that it was harder to appreciate Debussy's careful word-setting in French, and how that was enunciated and projected by the singers. It was a huge disservice to the audience.

And having one's head buried in the programme book would have made 'paying attention where it most belonged' any easier? Harder, I would have thought. Please don't give the Proms food for not having supertitles - we battled so hard for them in the past few seasons. Not having them for The Makropoulos Case left so many people bewildered. By the time they realised they should have bought a programme two-thirds of the opera was over.

Thank goodness for the surtitles!! The direction was totally baffling and I cannot agree more with the above article saying the direction should be to explain and demystify the story, not to confuse even more. It would be better not to 'stage' it at all than put odd and inexplicable props like the easels which supposedly doubled as the Tower etc. The acting around the long hair was ludicrous, the 3 peasants creeping on were bizarre, the use of the easels didn't work and had no suggestion of a tower at all, and the weird disturbing morphing somewhat sexually charged scene with the 'son' at the end of the first half was highly disturbing. We left at that point as my family didn't wish to stay for such a lengthy opera when it was so confused, disturbing, and poorly directed. I had chosen this night of the Proms to come to as I thought it would be more exciting having a part staged performance than simply the orchestra, but I agree again with the above author that it was by far the best when I closed my eyes and let the music wash through me. Shame on the director for damaging an otherwise excellent musical performance. My family will never be willing to attend another opera now.

Correct that immediately, if you can afford it, by taking them to see Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera Holland Park. There's a production which tells a funny and magical story with the utmost clarity. It does seem a shame that Glyndebourne couldn't shuck Herheim's obscure, messy vision when it visited the Proms. It made an opera I love almost unbearable to watch in the production proper.

I agree that the stage "direction" was a major distraction, but at the same time it was intentionally symbolist, even surrealistic; and it didn't always fail. The idea that each character was painting their own image of reality on a false canvas had some merit. What I found to be a greater distraction was the musical direction. I am (always have been) a great fan of Robin Ticciati, but I feel his reading of the score was miscalculated. At least the stage director tried to encapsulate the symbolist ideas of Debussy and Maeterlinck, while Ticciati seemed more intent on reimagining the music as late Romantic. There was far more allusion to Wagner and even Brahms than to the future soundscapes of Stravinsky that I believe Debussy anticipated. As "pretty" as the music sounded, this was not, for me, what Pélleas is all about.

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