Scottish Opera are on their Finest Form for David McVicar’s Pelléas et Melisande

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Pelléas et Melisande: Soloists and Chorus of Scottish Opera / Stuart Stratford (conductor), Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 11.3.2017. (SRT)

Carolyn Sampson as Mélisande in Pelléas and Mélisande. Scottish Opera 2017. Credit Richard Campbell. (3)
Carolyn Sampson (Mélisande) in SO’s Pelléas and Mélisande (c) Richard Campbell


Pelléas – Andrei Bondarenko
Mélisande – Carolyn Sampson
Golaud – Roland Wood
Arkel – Alastair Miles
Geneviève – Anne Mason
Yniold – Cedric Amamoo
Doctor – Jonathan May

Director – David McVicar
Designer – Rae Smith
Lighting – Paule Constavble

David McVicar’s productions for Scottish Opera can’t escape the celebratory feeling of a local boy come home. Whether that’s a valid explanation or not, the company definitely raises his game when he is in charge of the stagecraft, be it for 2008’s La Traviata, 2012’s Rake’s Progress or, now, this Pelléas et Mélisande, which sees the company back on their finest form.

McVicar’s production takes us inside both the decaying kingdom of Allemonde and the minds of its characters. Rae Smith’s set is a fading stately home that is crumbling round the edges, and its transitions between interior and exterior are very effective, switching from, say, the Well of the Blind to Golaud’s bedchamber in an instant. It also has the advantage of ensuring that the characters are never dwarfed so that the intimacy of the piece is always underlined, something helped by the peep-show style in which the curtain opens, suggesting that we are eavesdropping on the most private of conversations.

McVicar’s vision was inspired by the subdued interiors of Vilhem Hammershøi, and they suit the dark suggestiveness of Debussy’s opera very well indeed. Characters turn their backs on one another and obscure their true intentions, and even the final scene of Act IV, where Pelléas and Mélisande finally declare their love for one another, seems strangely devoid of intimacy. Costumes suggest both the buttoned up world of the late Victorians and the chilly atmosphere of the Nordic lands, and the fallen leaves that litter the edges of the stage reinforce the idea that decay is creeping in.

The characters inhabit all of this very convincingly, crowned by a gloriously sung Mélisande from Carolyn Sampson, radiantly beautiful and full of pathos. Dressed in white throughout, her actions seem to undermine the innocence that is frequently attributed to her, and her singing of crystalline purity is one of the wonders of the evening. Next to her, Andrei Bondarenko’s approach to both text and intonation is rather approximate and unsubtle, but Roland Wood captures Golaud brilliantly. I haven’t always enjoyed the hint of gravel that often comes with his voice, but here he puts it to excellent use to suggest Golaud’s barely concealed agony. It is good to have an actual child singing Yniold, and Cedric Amamoo does so very well. Anne Mason’s powerless Geneviève can only watch in tortured paralysis, while Alastair Miles (incredibly making his company debut!) sings Arkel with decaying grandeur, as if to show that his authority is on the way out.

I’ve seldom heard the orchestra sound so good in recent years, inhabiting the shimmering, translucent textures of Debussy’s extraordinary score with what sounds like remarkable expertise. Part of that might be explained by the fact that I was hearing them at the end of the run, but I hope it’s also thanks to the fact that they play well for their (still relatively new) music director, Stuart Stratford.

I admit that I often struggle with this opera. Sometimes its complexities and unanswered questions can be liberating, but I nearly always lose patience with it towards the end, and wish that a good half hour had been shaved off. However, even I was won over as, in the finale scene, Mélisande seems to give birth to herself and the whole tragedy prepares to start again as the final tableau transforms back into the very first.

This sees the company firing on all cylinders, and the well-filled house (far better filled, let it be noted, than many of their recent Gilbert and Sullivan distractions) was, I hope, affirmation for them that being adventurous can reap its own rewards. That adventurousness continues with a new collaboration with the Scottish independent theatre company Vanishing Point later this month. They join forces to stage a double-bill of Bluebeard’s Castle and a new work inspired by it, The 8th Door. Watch this space for more.

Simon Thompson

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