English Touring Opera Takes to the Road with Praiseworthy Pelléas et Mélisande

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (arr. Annelies van Parys): Soloists, Orchestra of English Touring Opera / Jonathan Berman (conductor). Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, 1.10.2015 (MB)

Arkel – Michael Druiett
Geneviève – Helen Johnson
Golaud – Stephan Loges
Pelléas – Jonathan McGovern
Yniold – Lauren Zolezzi
Mélisande – Susanna Hurrell

Oliver Townsend (designs)
Mark Howland (lighting)
Bernadette Iglich (movement)
Zakk Hein (video)
James Conway (director)


In a better world, or even the same world with better audiences, the proportion of performances given by our opera houses of Pelléas et Mélisande and La traviata would at the very least be reversed. As it is, we find ourselves forced to make a virtue out of the relative rarity of performances of a work all consider to be a towering masterpiece. We are grateful when they come, and perhaps treasure them all the more. We are, or at least should be, especially grateful when a touring company with financial resources far more limited than our great opera houses, stages Pelléas, all the more so when it does so with such success. Once again, then: hats off to English Touring Opera!

Debussy’s opera is given in an arrangement for chamber ensemble by Annelies van Parys. One could, if one wished, spend the time wishing that one had the Berlin Philharmonic and Karajan, but that would seem a pointless pursuit. What strikes, with respect to a sound that is decidedly un-Karajan-like, although no closer, say, to Abbado, Boulez, or, for that matter, Désormière, is how much it convinces on its own terms. Balances are different, and perhaps not always at their optimum, wind instruments inevitably coming more to the fore without the cushion of massed strings. By the same token, however, solo strings sometimes evoke the Debussy of his chamber music, not least the String Quartet. One hears lines differently and yet, at some level, the same. Malevolence still stretches its fungal tentacles; elegance that is never ‘just’ elegance remains (as so often, when speaking about this work, one is tempted to lapse into French, and say demeure instead).

Two scenes are omitted entirely: a pity, perhaps, although I missed them far less than I should have imagined. Director James Conway takes the radical step of reintroducing words in spoken form at the end of the first ‘act’ (part way through the third). Golaud’s warning to Pelléas in some ways chills all the more for being spoken. Perhaps that is founded on the knowledge of what we ‘should’ be hearing, perhaps not, but I found it an elegant and dramatic solution.

In such circumstances, it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to distinguish too strongly between instrumentation and performance. However, the playing of the orchestra of English Touring Opera seemed to me throughout as alert and as sensitive as anyone could reasonably have expected, perhaps more so. What was being asked of these solo musicians was no mean task, and they played with the excellence we have come to expect. Jonathan Berman’s conducting was another strength. If I say that, for the most part, I barely noticed it, I do not mean that negatively. The ebb and flow of Debussy’s score rather seemed – and ‘seemed’ is surely the operative word here – to take care of themselves, with only occasional awkward corners, which may well be smoothed as the run progresses. One would not expect such a performance to be a ‘conductor’s performance’ as from those great names of the past I mentioned earlier; this was more a matter of subtly enabling and, yes, leading a company effort. In that and much else, it proved a great success.

Conway’s production emphasises, especially in the designs of Oliver Townsend and lighting of Mark Howland, the suffocation of the fin-de-siècle environment from which Pelléas springs. Light use of video (Zakk Hein) enhances rather than distracts. Characteristic wallpaper and costumes remind us that the castle here is as important a ‘character’ as it would be some years later in Bluebeard’s Castle, an opera which much to Debussy’s example. Longing for escape in nature and, perhaps, Tristan-esque oblivion may be vain but it is no more real for that. It is striking how much can be done with a single set and clever, well-achieved shifts of lighting: what will clearly be a necessity for touring here takes on unifying, escape-denying, imaginative virtue of its own. There seems, moreover, a hint at least of the road to the Poe opera Debussy would never complete.

I really have nothing but praise for the singing. The cast worked very well together, more than the sum of its parts, which in itself was considerable. At chronological extremes, Michael Druiett and Lauren Zolezzi convinced as ancient Arkel and young Yniold. Arkel’s ambiguity – what really is the nature of his fondness for Mélisande? Is that even the right question to ask – came through very strongly; so too did the boyishness of Zolezzi’s portrayal. Geneviève’s letter-reading generally makes a fine impression; that is no reason not to praise it again when it does, as it did with Helen Johnson. Susanna Hurrell’s Mélisande seemed to hark back in its light, bright quality to early assumptions; she achieved, for me, just the right balance between what might be self-assertion and discomfiting willingness – inability to do anything else? – to act as a blank canvas for male projections. In her first scene, I thought of Kundry; later, I found myself thinking of Lulu. Jonathan McGovern’s Pelléas initially came across with striking, almost but not quite child-like naïveté, and developed into something that was perhaps no more grown-up, but equally striking in its self-absorption: more pathological than one often sees, and all the more intriguing for it. The wounded masculinity of Stephan Loges’s powerfully-sung Golaud, quite contrasting in timbre, was a singular dramatic achievement both in its vocal essence and its dramatic consequences. ‘Perhaps no events that are pointless occur,’ Arkel says. If a production has succeeded, one’s reply will most likely be ‘perhaps’. And indeed it was.

Pelléas et Mélisande will be performed again in London on 3 October, and will travel to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape, and Exeter. For more details from ETO, click here.

Mark Berry

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