Sam Pryce review Pelléas et Mélisande, WNO

May 30, 2015 by

Based on Maeterlinck’s now-obscure Symbolist play of the same name, Debussy’s only full-length opera Pelléas et Mélisande is a sensuously sinister exploration of sexuality and sanity. For his only opera, it certainly eschews what we expect. There are hardly any arias or chorus, and the libretto is made up almost entirely of the original script. This enables the opera to express the unsayable, to capture the unfathomable depths of human behaviour, with the orchestra playing a bigger part than the singers. And it all makes for a beautifully strange evening.


Continuing WNO’s season theme ‘A Terrible Innocence’, David Pountney’s production draws our attention to its unknowable and mysterious central figure, Mélisande, and the ways in which sane characters become wild and crazed after coming into contact with ‘such innocence,’ as Golaud sings at one point.


In the mystical land of Allemonde, Golaud is out hunting when he finds a mysterious femme fatale lying by a lake – Mélisande. Her identity and origins are unknown, and yet he falls in love with her instantly. However, after marrying her, Golaud’s brother Pelléas becomes enchanted by her beauty and the clandestine couple consummate their love. That is until Golaud finds out. Sex, violence and death – the key ingredients to any great opera – abound the final acts. And just when you thought Mélisande could not provoke any longer, the final image of her, once again emerging from a body bag, suggests that her enigmatic presence could, one day, be among us.


Scott Wilde and Leah-Marian Jones


WNO’s Artistic Director David Pountney employs many arresting motifs that accentuate neglected aspects of this endlessly mesmerising opera. Pélleas and Mélisande’s odd fascination with light is shown through the intermittent rise and descent of a back curtain showing soft, misty light, thus shrouding their motives in mystique. Johan Engels’s arresting set shows the castle as a mechanical, metallic and nightmarish construction, sporting a colossal skeleton that looms over proceedings – a portentous and palpable presence of death. Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes too accentuate light and dark, with glittering, deep black garments, adding a Gothic glaze to the story and taking note of Debussy’s interest in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The flaws though were highlighted by audience members who had previously seen WNO’s production of Berg’s Lulu which used suspiciously similar motifs and costumes. Nevertheless, although recycled, they are all given new meanings in this opera and create an interesting synergy between Pountney’s choices.


Jurgita Adamonytė and Rebecca Bottone



Lothar Koenigs as conductor of an always flawless orchestra brings a remarkable lucidity to Debussy’s exquisitely fluid score. Every nuance in the composition resonates. The singers too are consistently good, and some exceptional performances are given. Christopher Purves is particularly brilliant as Golaud, switching from a savage brute to a man wracked with guilt and remorse, while injecting these feelings into his singing – an intelligent and multi-faceted performance. Jurgita Adamonytė is a magnetic Mélisande, her voice hypnotic, and Jacques Imbrailo seems more innocent as her Pelléas. Scott Wilde, who boomed his way through The Magic Flute, takes a more sensitive role here as the grandfather of Golaud and Pelléas yet Leah-Marian Jones gives a strangely sinister portrayal of their mother, Geneviѐve.

WNO Pelléas and Mélisande - Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas) and Christopher Purves (Golaud). Photo credit - Clive Barda 568 (2)

Jacques Imbraillo and Christopher Purves


Admittedly, this opera does appeal to an acquired taste. Luckily, it did more than to satisfy my palette. For a mystifying evening filled with haunting music and a peculiar yet ferociously compelling storyline, allow yourself to be mesmerised and enthralled by Debussy’s otherworldly opera.


WNO’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ is at Wales Millennium Centre on 4th and 6th June 2015.


  1. Great review. A fascinating work. But, it is not his only opera, just the only one he did manage to complete. Did you see the House of Usher Double Bill last year with WNO?

    1. Thank you. Yes, I meant to say his only full-length. Humblest apologies. And no, but I did want to. He liked his Edgar Allen Poe, ol’ Claude, didn’t he?

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