David Pountney’s recent opera productions display a near Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation, the continuance of the spirit, the revolution of the wheel of life. He similarly adopt the more modern convention of why invent the wheel by rolling out the same theme, style and message of a show with different music and libretto.
Thus this new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, based on a Maeterlinck play lost in the mists of time, takes us back to Lulu in both concept and look with the set an equally mysterious quasi-medieval kingdom of Allemonde and the idea of the central female character is a life force that goes round and round.
Jurgita Adamonyté and Jacques Imbrailo
It is quite possible to have such a thematic approach to Debussy’s ambiguous music and his equally ambiguous writing about the work. It is a neat touch, therefore, that the doctor who appears in the final scene to give a sort of explanation of Mélisande’s health and state of mind bears what I assume is an intentional similarity to the composer.
We have the same scaffolding structure we had in Pountney’s Lulu with the DNA-like spiral within it and this time it is topped with a skull and it has the bones of arms hanging from the central tower torso. Around its base is water which keeps with the story of the opera with the importance of the sea, lake and the well, which all comply with the life-giving, evolution and life consuming elemental aspect of the work – and the director’s approach.
Much of the action, therefore, takes place in the water or to a lesser extent in that tower that rises out of it. We also have a couple of large throne like chairs and a death couch for Mélisande. In one chair either the old king sits and ponders his family and Pelléas sits in the other to be seduced by the hair of Mélisande, although here she is in that tower and three women of blond, brunette and red hair do the seducing.
Jurgita-Adamonyté and Rebecca Bottone
Johan Engels’ set enables the characters to carry out their actions within this skeletal body or the surrounding water. When the lovers free theur passion they are transformed in Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes from pure white into blood-red, so when in that torso they almost become its beating heart. Within that water three other women move around in a slightly spooky sort of way, particularly when they are either the haggard victims of famine, harbingers of death, or virtual Rhinemaidens in the waters where Mélisande “loses” her wedding ring. When Mélisande dies they reappear to literally walk her out of the opera. This is necessary, so that when the doctor (i.e. Debussy) pulls back the sheet that is supposedly covering her body and the mother- in-law holding Mélisande’s baby unfurls the shawl there are no bodies there, just dust. Rebirth is on its way. The wheel will turn.
As with Lulu, Mélisande has appeared at the start of the opera emerging from an amniotic sack, which in this production has been “laid” by a death-skull horned beast with flowing black train, and again as in Lulu at the end of the opera another woman starts to emerge from another sac he walks across the stage and deposits. The wheel of life continues. She appears with blood on the bottom of her white flowing dress, probably as she has been born, but perhaps Pountney also sees her as the victim/prey that he has wounded in the hunt but lost, just a she is now lost in the symbolic forest. No Eve-like apple this time however.
The less the gentle and haunting singing and presence of Jurgita Adamonytė is juxtaposed with her role as an object of sexual attraction which even has the king, her grandfather by marriage, blind Arkel sung by Scott Wilde, giving her a good snog and her mother-in-law Geneviève having a bit of a kiss at one stage. Clearly her nephew, the adolescent Yniold, sprightly sung and jiggly performed Rebecca Bottone, is also struggling with his hormones when it comes to the blonde beauty. Yes, Pountney has lots of ideas, lots of interpretation and adds a gratifying topping of icing on Debussy’s multi-layered cake of in determinant flavours. But one thing you could never accuse Poutney of subtlety. He is like that death-skull bull in the proverbial china shop. He may not smash Debuss’s precariously balanced fine Sevres tea service but he certainly leaves it rocking.
So we also have the beautifully sung Pelléas from the perfectly voiced high baritone of Jacques Imbrailo rather solidly portrayed as not so much the innocent who falls for the mysterious beauty but a little bit of what we would now possibly diagnose as autistic child. With his death-white make up he can hardly physically cope when his emotional and thought processes are disrupted by the passions Mélisande unleash.
Christopher Purves and Jacques Imbrailo
Similarly, Christopher Purves vocally and dramatically heavyweight performance as Mélisande’s unfortunate husband Golaud (and Pélleas’s brother) cannot work out what to think or do when wracked by the evolution of his feelings for the strange child-like woman from infatuation to suspicion.
Jurgita Adamonytė has the greatest challenge singing and acting Mélisande in any production or even concert performance of the opera and here she has the double whammy of having to fulfil Pountney’s interpretation while also remaining true to Debussy’s music. Her warm and languid mezzo achieves this.
Yet even if one feels that the last thing Debussy’s masterpiece needs is more enigmas, no one will argue with the musical quality of this production, which is superb. Jacques Imbrailo inhabits Pelléas’ shy tentativeness, with his high baritone finely deployed. Jurgita Adamonytė’s mezzo gives Mélisande more warmth than usual, though she retains her fragile fascination.
Because of that odd kiss the now also enigmatic Geneviève is sung with an understated gravitas by Leah-Marian Jones in her showpiece letter scene and while she does sing at the end she has that all important dramatic, shawl unfurling flourish.
Scott Wilde and Leah-Marian Jones
There is nothing to fault and all to praise with the Welsh National Opera’s orchestra and conductor Lothar Koenigs, with a richness of colour and texture weaves out of this one of the most through composed works that becomes musically homogenous and while resonating with the influences of its era has an enthralling uniqueness.
It would be wrong not to pour praise on the lighting from Mark Jonathan who gave us some visually intoxicating images throughout the night and particularly the use of Debussy blue light in the transfixing illumination of the skeleton tower.
The imbalance of funding in Wales and the ongoing mindset by those who still think it makes them intellectually and culturally superior rather than usually just rather arrivé in our small nation to attend the opera seems to sometimes bring about behaviour from WNO that makes them appear the slightly spoiled child of the arts. However, with the state of arts funding their ivory tower is, of course, actually more like the show’s slightly shaky metal structure. Fortunately with the creative artists maintaining the calibre of performances such as this the company’s at times out of touch behaviour is acceptable, just.
One does have to wonder, however, why on the Peter Pan panto that should have been left to one of the several commercial companies that specialise in such children’s shows is being taken to the Royal Opera House instead of this production that is actually worth the millions of pounds of state subsidy the company receives and would be a positive investment of our money in Wales’ cultural communications to a wider artistic and opinion-forming audience.
Wales Millennium Centre, June 4, 6 and then Birmingham.