With a two-night-only season, Victorian Opera shall bring to Melbourne and to life the work of Debussy and Maeterlinck in their newly haunting interpretation of Pelleas and Melisande (Pelléas et Mélisande). Remaining one of “the most seminal operas ever written”, this revolutionary yet rarely-heard opera shall preview at the Palais Theatre in St. Kilda on the 100th anniversary of dear Debussy’s death. Featuring a stellar cast, Pelleas and Melisande takes us on a journey of love and despair, following Golaud’s marriage to the mysterious Melisande before her innocent love affair with his brother develops and creates suspicions and tensions alike, ultimately destroying the family bonds in the tragic grip of fate.

To help vivisect this stunningly unconventional opera, Director Elizabeth Hill proved open to sharing thoughts on her journey in opera and her journey with the piece. As Victorian Opera’s Executive Producer and Artistic Associate, Hill was able to shed light of some of the usual processes and her experiences with Pelleas and Melisande. Noting her awareness of Debussy’s music prior to knowing the show itself, Hill mentions her professional companionship with fellow Artistic Director Richard Mills in planning each season of Victorian Opera with keen consideration, and that the opera first came across her desk about two years ago.

Upon asking what was so attractive to her about the opera, Hill eagerly chimes in: “Everything! The score, the characters, the story. All of it. It’s an uncannily beautiful opera and completely unlike anything else ever written.” Knowing that they were looking for the right people to play the parts with utmost precision and do justice to each role, Hill colourfully describes working with her cast as “glorious” and that “they are wonderful”.

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To quench our curiosities about the rehearsal room and the processes therein, Hill details the environment to us. “It’s calm,” she relays. “We discuss aspects of the work a lot and then stage the thoughts. It’s been a very collaborative rehearsal room.” Upon enquiring about the people she reaches out to in the room, Hill lets on that she has different people depending on the situations. “I work closely with Richard Mills, our Conductor and Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director, as well as my Assistant Director, Laura Hansford.” Hills also speaks of the value of her personal relationships outside of her immediate profession, tenderly mentioning, “and at the end of each day and without exception, my husband.”

However, there are always mountains to climb and hurdles to jump when putting on a project, especially when its a new interpretation of a game-changing work. Based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1893 play of the same name, Pelleas and Melisande combines text, ethereal harmonies and instrumental colour in atmospheric poetry without the conventions of your traditional arias and grandiose expressions of feelings. “The opera is challenging,” Hill speaks as she reflects on her directorial obstacles. “Being written as a symbolist piece of work, it is very complex. We have all worked hard to stay true to the text and the composer’s stage directions. We have worked on placing the written symbols where they have been intended to be seen or heard and therefore the challenge has been not to over-interpret the writing and place our own layers over the symbols.”

To help with her interpretation, Hill affirms inspiration from John William Waterhouse’s paintings, which were completed during the same period as the opera itself. With portraits of young women pondering in beautiful wildernesses, Hill states, “The opera is set is the mythical kingdom of Allemonde, and we’ve remained true to that sense of a mythical place and time.”

Hill also proclaims the pressures she feels in presenting such a revolutionary work. Describing her want to remain true to the haunting beauty of the show, Hill reveals, “It has been a wonderful privilege to be the curator of this production. The pressure is welcome. I hope each audience member forms a different interpretation of the work to the person sitting beside them.” Speaking fondly of her adoration of the work and favourite moments (“There are too many to mention!”), and her admiration for the process and the people that have joined in to help construct and refine such an awesome product – including the creative team and cast with all hours inside and outside of the rehearsal room and theatre – Hill brings one last message to the table: the most valuable piece of advice she’s ever received from her theatre mentors. “Stay true to your vision, be just to all you work with, and lead with clarity and fairness.”

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With a score unsettling yet seductive, Pelleas and Melisande illuminates the darker tones of society and humanity: jealousy, paranoia, retribution. Delving into the mindset of each character and creating a lingering sense of ambiguity between characters and in the thematic concerns that arise, this opera is sure to stir audiences in their perception of the human condition with the mysterious and melodious music of Debussy, and shall encourage audiences’ sense of discovery and curiosity as they observe the unfolding of events in utmost captivation.

Link to a great behind the scenes trailer: https://youtu.be/ww6btyDb2sk

October 11 – 13


Images: Charlie Kinross