Pelléas and Mélisande by Scottish Opera, directed by Sir David McVicar, stops off at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh this week, and brings to life Claude Debussy’s operatic masterpiece (libretto was adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck's Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande). The only opera Debussy ever completed, it is considered a landmark in 20th century music.
Since its premiere over a hundred years ago (1902), this tells the story of Prince Golaud (Roland Wood) finding the beautiful and mysterious Mélisande (Carolyn Sampson) lost in the forest, and soon after marrying her. Golaud and Mélisande later return to the family castle and lands belonging to his elderly grandfather Arkel, King of Allemonde (Alastair Miles), a simple fairy tale beginning to a story that turns into a deadly love triangle as Mélisande becomes increasingly attracted to Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas (Andrei Bondarenko).
Pelléas and Mélisande is a very complex production requiring many scene settings along the way of its slowly unfolding story and more than any other production that I have seen in the past few years, the visuals of this production are just as important as the voices and music. In this production, director Sir David McVicar is joined by the design team behind War Horse, Rae Smith (designer) and Paule Constable (Lighting). Inspired by the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, the cover of the programme features his 1901 painting “Woman In an Interior Strandgrade 30”. The beautifully coloured, arranged, and costumed sets are superbly lit to give the feeling of actually watching one of these dark Flemish paintings come to life. Often they reminded me too of Whistler paintings from the same period.
It is against this dark toned backdrop that our doomed love triangle starts to play out. Carolyn Sampson is superb as the enigmatic Mélisande both vocally and as an actress. There is an “other worldly” element to her character, and thankfully many questions are never answered here…we really don’t want to know where she comes from, or how old she is. Mélisande seems to have a connection with water and the basic elements of nature throughout the story, and the dark spaces of the castle and the dark forests surrounding it have an immediate impact on her emotional and physical health when she arrives. Mélisande is almost a beacon of light, and this is captured in her costume and careful lighting. This light in contrast to the darkness of the spaces and sombre colour palettes of those around her makes Mélisande at odds with the dark Flemish paintings that she inhabits. With her very “Arthurian Legends” look of long body length hair, pale complexion and white and gold dress, the similarities to a “Lady of the Lakes” is obvious. Mélisande looks like she belongs in another painting (particularly when holding a sword); one by any of the great pre-Raphaelites.
The first half of this performance requires a lot of time setting the story and growing jealousy and mistrust that is growing inside Golaud for Pelléas, and this does require a lot of curtain drops which leave the audience looking at a black curtained stage. Even these are done with some style though as left, right and above slowly come together in ever decreasing sized rectangles that are a bit like framing the sections of a painting. The reverse use of increasing that rectangle to full (or part when needed) stage size is equally effective. It is at these points while the music of Debussy still plays that the bigger picture of how all the elements here fit in start to make more sense….even the use of silence.
Andrei Bondarenko as Pelléas is impressive throughout the evening and makes an obvious visual and musical counter balance to Roland Wood’s Golaud, and together are like light and shade, particularly when Mélisande experiences some of Goulad’s far darker side. Connecting all three principal characters together and keeping the story moving at many times is Alastair Miles with a well balanced portrayal of the elderly King Arkel.
Pelléas and Mélisande are doomed in their love from the beginning here. Carolyn Sampson and Andrei Bondarenko are a classic partnership here. There is always though that unknown coldness of Mélisande as a character that seems to create a barrier at times to this being a love story of great emotions.
In keeping with the perfect symmetry of this story and the on stage visuals, we come full circle at the end to where Mélisande and Golaud occupy space on stage at the beginning.
This was my first visit to Pelléas and Mélisande, and I know that in getting involved so quickly in the story and the visuals of this production that I have missed some of the finer points of Debussy’s inspired music. The orchestra were superb tonight, but another visit is really needed to concentrate more on the music this time now that I know the story.
Pelléas and Mélisande is a hugely ambitious work on many levels that has so obviously had enormous time, care and attention put into it, and that shows when all these elements come together on stage.
Review by Tom King