Victorian Opera’s Pelleas and Melisande is not an opera for the faint of heart. The intricacy and complexity of the composition might alienate some audience members, but for those with a bit of an open mind and a bit more patience there seems to be a wealth of intrigue to be extracted.
It was Debussy’s first and last opera, a work that set Maurice Maeterlinck’s play of the same name to music, and the composition takes the libretto of the play and recreates it almost in its entirety onstage, barring some small cuts, the final score consisting entirely of continuous solo lines and conversations between characters. There are no discernible “songs”; there are no memorable “melodies”, and yet the work is undeniably alluring to sink your teeth into. Victorian Opera has to be commended for taking their shot at it, as introducing new audiences to the work will undoubtedly foster a new generation of enthusiasts for the unusual work (and unusual works in general). If you are interested in digging into some fascinating compositions, then this is the show for you. If you are after a more conventional theatre experience however, it may be best to look elsewhere.
The musical performances across the board are exquisite, each singer bringing their own style to each role. Siobhan Stagg brings a marvellous gravity to Melisande, her voice soaring over the orchestra and the emotional depth of the music coming through quite clearly. Melisande is often quite manic and nervous throughout, which can be difficult to convey without overacting but Stagg’s expertise shows through and carries her vocally and brings the audience with her on her journey. Angus Wood, as Pelleas, sings wonderfully as well. While the score didn’t have many sections for Wood to flex his tenor muscles, the moments where he could were divine. The top notes were clear and full of texture; his effortless vocals established him as a clear stand out amongst the cast. It was a shame that Pelleas didn’t make it to the last act as I would have loved to hear Wood a bit more, but perhaps that can be considered a cliff hanger for his next production. Samuel Dundas, as Golaud, is always a delight to see perform, his emotional journey is always clear on the stage and Dundas brings a lot of subtlety and realism to each role he performs. His voice is exceptional, but it is the humanity he brings to the role that sets Dundas apart. Golaud, as the first voice you hear, is set up as a bait-and-switch romantic lead (think Hans from Frozen but 100 years early) a knight in shining armour that saves Melisande and brings his prize home; but then becomes paranoid and jealous of his half-brother, slowly going mad over the course of the opera. In another story, this character might have been the hero so it’s refreshing to have his toxic entitlement be explored and Dundas should be commended for bringing those themes forth in his portrayal.
David Parkin and Liane Keegan play King Arkel and his daughter, Genevieve. Keegan sounded great, but like many other roles she didn’t have as much stage time as I would have liked. She is seen in act one for two glorious scenes but then not again until act five. As the only other female character (but not performer) on stage, I would have liked more of a developed relationship between Genevieve and Melisande, but I suppose we’d have to take that up with Debussy. Parkin as King Arkel performs admirably as the stoic ruler. His rich bass voice commanding attention and demanding to be taken seriously. Each scene Parkin was in would revolve around him with each character capitulating to his royal presence. Vocally, Parkin was perfectly cast as a King. The last two soloists, Sophia Wasley and Stephen Marsh sung their short sections very well. Wasley, although clearly much younger than the other performers and at the beginning of her career, was able to vocally match the likes of the much more developed singers. There is a long road ahead for the young singer, but she is on track to make many more significant contributions to opera and is definitely one to watch. Marsh shows himself once again to be a tenacious singer, undaunted by the heavy weight voices he was matched up against. Although the doctor was only around in the last act, his lower register carried very well and his vocal presence made itself known, Marsh didn’t let his late entry stop him from making his mark on the production and performed exceptionally. The ensemble was a surprising delight, although only appearing as offstage voices in the first half of the show. The true star of the production was the orchestra. Each scene was followed by an orchestral interlude that seemed so full of energy and charm that it almost became a character itself, an embodiment of the world the singers found themselves in. Richard Mills always delivers, but this production solidified him as one of the greats; his passion, knowledge and enthusiasm for the composition clearly making its mark on every aspect of the performance.
The vocal performances for each performer were fantastic; however the physicalisation and characterisations were not as finely crafted. There was a lot of stoicism from the cast, everyone seemed to be focussing on the music and so their individual interpretations of the characters were somewhat lost. The titular relationship seemed quite underdeveloped, although I’m not sure if that’s an intentional choice because of the libretto itself or a lack of chemistry between singers. Melisande seemed quite uninterested in Pelleas and likewise, Pelleas always seemed to be focussed on other events. The solo heavy nature of the composition didn’t help this, as the audience never saw a moment where the two of them sang together and developed their relationship. This meant that by the time the third act rolled around and suddenly Pelleas was vehemently caressing Melisande’s hair, it feels like the first time they’ve shown any real interest in each other. There may be some subtlety within the score that hints at their admiration for one another, but as it was presented the reason they fall in love is because the libretto says they do. Many of the acting choices seemed to follow this style; unless they literally state an action (“hold my hand” or “don’t touch your neck”) many of the actors seemed unsure of what to do onstage. This lead to many scenes being very static, the performers singing out to the audience and standing still, not connecting with the other singers or the audience. Without the connection between singers, it was often hard to follow the action or relationships between characters and how they felt about each other. The libretto itself didn’t help with this, as much of the dialogue was often overly simplistic in nature. Translations like “I feel happy, but I am also sad” undermined the complexity of the music. Some of the conversations were specifically written to feel very disjointed which wasn’t a problem, but with the addition of the unsophisticated translations it made it difficult to connect with the characters. Without the depth in the libretto, the performances fell back on quite melodramatic tropes. This performance style also contrasted with the music as there was a lot to digest in the composition, but it was difficult to connect in the same way with the text and themes of the opera itself. The underdeveloped character interactions and underwritten libretto often lead many scenes to drag or feel superfluous to any point the opera was trying to make.
In terms of the design, the production seemed to fall into the same traps as the performances. The set looked interesting, white sheets draping from the sky and three rotating windowed rooms that created each of the locations, but the set never seemed to fully justify itself as a choice. The rotating rooms were moved by three dancers, who were only ever on the periphery of each scene. I kept expecting them to have a dance in one of the many orchestral interludes, but they didn’t and turned into glorified stage hands. The mirrored rooms themselves also lacked a clear intention, they were used effectively to create a balcony and a throne room, but the outside and underground settings were unclear of exact location and the aesthetic structure of the mirrored rooms was never explored. Themes of reflection weren’t particularly strong, so the symbolic nature of mirrors was slightly perplexing. It wasn’t an unattractive set, but without it ever developing it didn’t enhance the meaning of the opera and thus was an aesthetically pleasing yet unessential component.
Due to its composition history, it is fair to call Pelleas and Melisande an operatic play more than anything. This fact means that the demands made on the singers are much higher as they are far more exposed in this production. With this in mind, they performed admirably. It is clearly a difficult vocal piece and the incredibly high technical ability needed to sing the roles are already a demanding facet of the production, when you then are also requiring them to present individual characters and relationships between each other it becomes an almost insurmountable task. Victorian Opera surmounted it and should be congratulated for presenting such a unique opera.
This may not be an easy opera as an audience member, but there is so much tucked away within it, just begging to be explored. If you’re looking for theatre that is emotionally affective, then this may not fill that desire. If you are interested in a piece of music that will challenge you and taunt you to obsess over it, then Pelleas and Melisande might just be perfect.