Review - Pelleas & Melisande - Welsh National Opera - Hong Kong Arts Festival


by Peter Gordon





Not all operas or performances are about the singers. The star of the Welsh National Opera’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the Hong Kong Arts Festival was its orchestra and conductor Lothar Koenigs who did Claude Debussy’s seamless score proud.



Pelléas et Mélisande is in some ways the antithesis of what many think opera is all about. There are no “tunes”, no swelling chords, no highwire high notes, no great emotional climaxes. The story is itself oblique, being taken from a late-19th-century Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck. If Debussy’s 1902 opera is not quite “modern”, it is certainly on the cusp.



The story in some ways appears to be a sort of pseudo-Arthurian legend: Prince Goulod, lost in woods, finds a distraught young woman weeping by a spring. We never know why, nor why she refuses to allow Goulod to retrieve her crown from the water. He falls in love and returns to the dark castle of his grandfather King Arkel with Mélisande as his wife. Over the next three-quarters of the opera, Goulod’s half-brother Pelléas falls in love with Mélisande, feelings which are (possibly) returned. It ends, as such things do, in tragedy, with Goulod finding them together as Pelléas is about to leave for good; Goulod kills Pelléas. In the final scene, Mélisande—united with the baby she has just given birth to—quietly expires while Goulod demands “the truth”.



It is all deliberately anti-realist, philosophical and dreamlike. Water (and tears) play an important role throughout, to the extent of being reflected in the liquid consonants of the characters’ names. The result, for better or worse, is some extraordinarily evocative music, but an opera that makes its appeal to the intellect rather than the heart.



Pelléas et Mélisande is not an obvious star vehicle for the performers. And when the play is more about symbols and atmosphere than characterization, there are few opportunities for acting. Notwithstanding, Lithuania mezzo-soprano Jurgita Adamonyté stood out as the mysterious, unknowable, ambivalent Mélisande. Jacques Imbrailo’s clear baritone navigated the relatively high role of Pelléas with seeming ease but Pelléas remained an unattractive character: feckless in both love and duty with few if any redeeming features.



The production was vaguely medieval with bits of armour and fur-lined cloaks, some bare chests. An open, prison-like tower in the form of a skeleton dominated the stage. This, combined with the atmospherics and somewhat unnatural plot gave the work a Gormenghast feel or—as perhaps it struck me some two-thirds of the way through—“Game of Thrones”. I am not, it seems, the only one to make this connection: it was noted by at least a couple of reviews of the original 2015 production.



The drawback was the large, shallow pond in centre-stage. This, in the apparent reflection of the theme of water that pervades the work, resulted in considerable sloshing about and performing in wet clothing. This tendency to make obvious what might otherwise have been left implied carried over into the details of the direction. Mélisande is made to have explicitly sexual encounters with both the old King Arkel and her step-son Yniold: not an impossible interpretation, but one which reduces the scope for the audience to reach its own conclusions.



An opera has already gone through one interpretation that distances it from the text and so it can sometimes be pedantic to insist on literalness. But the words do matter too and this production seems to stray incongruously from the text on several occasions. When at the well, Pelléas warns Mélisande “Prenez garde! Vous allez tomber!: “Be careful! You will fall in!” Unfortunately, she is at that point already sitting in water. Later, the production has Goulod catch Pelléas and Mélisande not just together, but in active flagrante delicto, as it were, making it hard to understand his later regretful statement that “Ils s'étaient embrassés comme des petits enfants... Ils étaient frère et soeur...”: “they were kissing like small children; they were as brother and sister.”



The music and the orchestra, however, remained untouched by any of this second-guessing. The applause was well-deserved.


This production has now closed. 



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