A Memorable Performance of Debussy’s Elusive Opera by WNO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande:  (Production Premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 29.5.2015 (GPu)

Mélisande: Jurgita Adamonyė
Pelléas: Jacques Imbrailo
Golaud: Christopher Purves
Arkel: Scott Wilde
Geneviève: Leah-Marian Jones
Yniold: Rebecca Bottone
Doctor: Stephen Wells

Director: da
Set Designer: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer: Mark Jonathan
Chorus Master: Alexander Martin


In the early Nineteenth Century Charles Lamb wrote an essay on Shakespeare’s tragedies, in which he argued that King Lear was essentially unperformable, that what Shakespeare sought to embody in the play was too huge and profound to be put on the stage successfully. He implied that as “an ideal conception of the poet’s art” the play is inevitably impoverished if acted in the theatre, when a “fine vision” is reduced to “the standard of flesh and blood”. I sometimes feel inclined to adopt something of this attitude towards Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and to borrow some of Lamb’s language. Perhaps more than any other opera I know, productions of Pelléas et Mélisande are always in danger (at least) of reducing a “fine vision” to “the standard of flesh and blood”. Of course it might be said of producing either King Lear or Pelléas et Mélisande that the very impossibility of the task is what makes it essential that it be undertaken. And, of course, it might be argued that both works are as much about fallible human beings, about “flesh and blood”, as they are about any kind of “ideal conception”. Where Pelléas et Mélisande is concerned, the tension between these two, “ideal conception” and “flesh and blood” might be regarded as one of the defining qualities of the work.

Pelléas et Mélisande is an opera which avoids the clear and the explicit, which exists in ambiguity and indirectness. Paul Griffiths (writing in The Oxford History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker, 1996) puts it well when he observes that its characteristic modes are those of “suggestion, hesitancy, and doubt, which are essential to the nature of the figures on stage. The characters reveal themselves only indirectly because they know themselves only indirectly … Debussy’s score gives extraordinarily full, wide-ranging, and direct access to indirection”. One might add that much in the plot remains unexplained (and perhaps inexplicable). David Pountney’s remarkable production of the opera is part of a season he has titled “A Terrible Innocence”. ‘Innocence’ itself is a far from ‘innocent’ word. It may refer to the state of being free of guilt, or it can mean being without guile or duplicity, or perhaps being naïve and unsophisticated, or lacking in self-knowledge, or being unaware of the likely consequences of one’s actions. If there is innocence to be found in Pelléas et Mélisande, then we should presumably locate it in the titular hero and heroine. Is Mélisande an ‘innocent’ serial victim of the men around her or a woman who uses (consciously or unconsciously) her air of innocence to manipulate those men? Pelléas seems to take an unfeasibly long time to come to any kind of recognition of his own feelings, of his own “flesh and blood”. These are fiercely difficult complexities/ambiguities for any singers/actors to articulate, if they resist the temptation of mere simplification, of choosing either/or.

Musically, Pelléas et Mélisande also presents considerable difficulties. First of all it requires an orchestra of the highest calibre and a conductor of considerable sensitivity and insight, one who can recognize both what Debussy’s score owes to Wagner and how unlike Wagner it is. Given that there are only two passages in the opera to which one might conceivably apply the term ‘aria’, and that most of what is vocalized is presented in what has been described as a kind of “syllabic arioso”, which owes much to the patterns of the French language, the job of the singers, qua singers, is also very difficult, since they must abandon much of the craft they have so painstakingly acquired. So much so that, famously, when Debussy played through his music for the cast, assembled before rehearsals for the premiere, his parting words were “Ladies and gentlemen, that is my Pelléas et Mélisande. To sing the music of Debussy you must forget that you are singers. Forget, I beg you, that you are singers. Good day”.

Pountney approaches the opera – having satisfied himself, no doubt, that in the present incarnation of the WNO orchestra and in Lothar Koenigs, he had at his disposal an orchestra and a conductor capable of doing justice to Debussy’s wonderful orchestral writing – by investing the protagonists with enough “flesh and blood” to make them plausible (if odd!) human beings, but avoiding resolution of many of the work’s enigmas. (Indeed he adds a few of his own!). When the opera opens, in the dark forest of medieval romance and fairy story, a bull-headed creature (a minotaur?) in a long black cloak walks threateningly across the stage, and leaves behind, from under the train of its trailing cloak, a female figure, wrapped in white, lying on the stage. We are thrust straight into a landscape of dream and/or myth, in which a figure clearly male (archetypally so, insofar as he is bull-headed) gives birth (at least metaphorically) to a female figure which may (or may not) be human.  (Fascinatingly, the scene is recapitulated at the end of the opera, suggesting that the pattern of events which we have witnessed will continue in an endlessly repeating cycle. Is this white figure, entirely covered (one might say veiled) in white, human or supernatural? Does she carry a history with her? The first thing we see of her is a hand emerge from this white cocoon or chrysalis and seemingly beckon or summon gently, someone or something. Is it specifically Golaud she is beckoning or is he merely the wandering ‘knight’ who happens to come along? (Some unidentified women in black seem to ‘guide’ him towards the finding of her). But if he is responding (perhaps without real awareness that he is doing so) to her ‘summons’, can it really be said that he finds her, or is he merely fulfilling his role in some larger pattern of which both are part?

When Golaud has ‘found’ her he sees a crown in the water near her. She tells him (can we believe anything she says? – and what she says, in any case, lacks any clarity of reference) “It is the crown which he gave me”. We immediately suspect that for all her appearance of virginal reluctance, Mélisande is well aware of the impact that her beauty, sexuality and seeming innocence can have on the men who approach her, and suspect that she has already deployed her ‘forces’ at least once before, on the unspecified “he” who gave her this crown. As the opera proceeds she seems increasingly surefooted in her manipulation of all the males (from the aged Arkel, through Golaud and Pelléas, all the way down to the boy Yniold) in Allemonde. I have found it necessary to use the word “seems” in the last sentence – since one is never  sure how far in this fantasy world appearances are (or aren’t) deceptive. After all, there are other moments when she seems almost naively unaware of the signals her own behaviour gives off or how that behaviour is likely to be interpreted. And, of course, Debussy’s music rarely offers us any guidance towards the resolution of our uncertainties.

If this is a fairy-tale world – as is most obviously evidenced by the Rapunzel-like motif of Mélisande’s long hair cascading down from the tower – it is a darkly Gothicised one, a fairy tale world marinated, as it were, in that particularly intense French response to the poems and stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The libretto is full of Gothic motifs – dark gardens where the sun never reaches, lonely towers, caves by the seashore, stagnant pools, etc. Pountney, wisely, doesn’t try to mimic these on stage, trusting the audience to use its imagination in response to these verbal signals and to Debussy’s music. The stage is dominated by the huge circular metal cage designed by the late Johan Engels and previously used in WNO’s production of Lulu. The skeletal metal frame contains part of an enormous human skeleton, with a skull on top, like a huge memento mori, and dangling down, the bones of two arms. The spiral staircase which runs up the frame’s interior made me, at least, think of the double helix of DNA, as well as a castle staircase. The water at the internal feet of the metal frame served as a reminder of the source of human life and of human life’s inescapable grounding in the liquid. Happening to know the relevant poem, I was also reminded of one of Laforgue’s ‘Hamlet’ poems, in which the rottenness in the state of Denmark is symbolised by a stagnant pool.  The effect of this grandly dominant, yet light, structure – which doubled well, as needed, as both castle and forest – was enhanced by the brilliantly conceived and executed lighting of Mark Jonathan. Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes were more Pre-Raphaelite than truly medieval, in keeping with the faux medievalism of Maeterlinck’s play and Debussy’s opera.

In a perceptive essay (‘Elusive half-lights’) printed in the programme, Caroline Rea briefly explores Pelléas et Mélisande in terms of the word crepuscule – “a word describing the eerie half-light between sunset and the deeper obscurity of night, crepuscule is darker and more ominous than dusk, and evokes the melancholic world of mystical dreams and imaginings beloved by the Symbolists that also inspired Debussy”, writes Rae. In my early teens I fell in love with the music of Thelonious Monk, one of the greatest pianist-composers of modern jazz. One of my favourites among his compositions was, and is, Crepuscule with Nellie (‘Nellie’ being Monk’s wife). Later, coming to the music of Debussy, I was always inclined to think of his one completed opera as ‘Crépuscule with Méli’, so Rae’s article rang lots of bells for me. But the crepuscularity is, as she knows, not only, or even primarily, a matter of literal darkness; it is also the central quality of Debussy’s orchestral score in this opera; as Rea observes, the governing “palette of orchestral sound-colour … is a masterful representation of fleeting musical half-lights”. The crepuscularity of Pelléas et Mélisande is more than adequately created by Debussy’s music and by the obliquity of characterization and narrative, without a director making us peer at ‘events’ on the stage through a literal gloom. Pountney shows good judgement by doing no such thing and as a result we are better able to encounter the opera on its own terms.

It is, finally, the music that dominates Pelléas et Mélisande and gives meaning to all its other elements; the libretto – of Debussy’s own making from the text of Maeterlinck’s play – is no masterpiece.  But the music certainly is. Lothar Koenigs will shortly leave his post as Musical Director of Welsh National Opera. If this were, indeed, to be the final production he was to conduct for the company then it is apt that it should be one that will stay long in the memory. He drew wonderfully sensitive – and paradoxically luminous – playing from the orchestra, whether in passages of evanescent beauty or, occasionally, of startlingly sensuous luxury. Throughout he maintained the fluidity (water imagery seems unavoidable in discussing it) of the music, while also highlighting, unobtrusively, individual details. He also supported the singers exquisitely. The whole was a consummate piece of music-making.

The three principal singers were all very impressive. Christopher Purves, as the most assertive of the opera’s characters (though still a character trapped in his own failures of comprehension), sang with power, passion and considerable beauty of sound, while the lighter baritone of Jacques Imbrailo registered his character’s initial tentativeness (and innocence?) very precisely, while also being able to rise to a greater (and very persuasive) ardency later – notably in the ‘balcony scene’ between Pelléas and Mélisande.   Jurgita Admonytė’s confused (and confusing) Mélisande was sung, for much of the time, with a kind of covered ‘radiance’, predominantly gentle and always moving. Of the supporting cast, Scott Wilde was largely convincing as a well-meaning (but often bewildered) Arkel, singing with sure authority, albeit without contributing anything of great individuality. Leah-Marian Jones, as Geneviève, was secure and intelligent in all that she did, as was Rebecca Bottone in the role of Yniold. Bottone is a young singer of real charm and stage presence.

Not content with the many enigmas of Debussy’s opera, David Pountney seem to want to set his audience a few additional puzzles, notably in the last scene. The doctor who had attended to the ailing Mélisande, sung by Stephen Wells, bore a remarkable resemblance to Debussy himself! Why, and to what purpose? To discuss those questions would unduly prolong an already lengthy review.

This, in short, was one of those relatively rare evenings of opera when all the elements came together, the sort of evening which, by its sheer intensity and near perfection, redeems more than a few evenings of disappointment in the opera house. I say ‘near perfect’ because, to return to Charles Lamb’s essay with which I opened this review, it is impossible to imagine a performance of so elusive an opera as Pelléas et Mélisande which would make one feel that it had ‘perfectly’ translated the composer’s “ideal conception” to the stage.

Glyn Pursglove


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