Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is one of the true gems of the 20th Century repertoire, although its delicate beauties can prove elusive for some operagoers. It’s difficult to see why, with a ravishing score and a compelling libretto drawn from Maeterlinck’s deeply evocative symbolist play.
Opera Holland Park were hardly blessed with the weather for the opening night of the season. Overriding dampness, steaming breath from the performers and a chill in the air provided an appropriate background to the opera but was a little uncomfortable for the audience.
Director Olivia Fuchs puts her cast in some perilous situations – singing while walking in a huge rolling cylinder, perched at the top of a narrowing slope and, nattiest of all, moving around on a board balanced on a ball that shifts the centre of gravity as the singer moves around it. If they hadn’t quite mastered it on the first night, it should provide a potent metaphor as the run progresses. One scene that lacks a sense of danger, and needs it above all, is the Act Three stalking of the young lovers by the boy Yniold at the instigation of his jealous father.
From his opening “I can’t find my way out of this forest” (something I’ve experienced more than once in Holland Park at the end of a performance), the great Alan Opie excels as Golaud. Impressive in recent years as Janacek heroines, the petite Anne Sophie Duprels is a waif-like Melisande in Lady Godiva wig, singing beautifully and unsurprisingly idiomatically, if over-acting at times. Palle Knudsen is a rich-toned but slightly effete Pelléas, not helped by a costume that would have sat well on Oscar Wilde.
The set, monolithic slabs of white, works well enough. I could have done without the ever-present glitter curtain and the Greek chorus of nightie-clad schoolgirls who float around with pillows and occasionally throw feathers in the air. Debussy’s interludes do perfectly well without them, although they do have a set-changing function that might have jarred with stagehands in blacks.
Lesser parts – Anne Mason’s Geneviève, Brian Bannatyne-Scott’s Arkel and Nicholas Lester’s Doctor/Shepherd – are well-taken and Eoghan McNelis sings sweetly as Yniold. His maturity takes away somewhat from the poignancy of Golaud’s bullying and disturbing exploitation, though. He’s far too tall to sit on his daddy’s knee, almost matching Opie in height and rendering the line “I want to be as big as you” slightly absurd.
Brad Cohen tirelessly conducts the City of London Sinfonia in a pellucid account of the remarkable score.
This opera is always a joy, even surviving Stanislas Nordey’s bizarre staging at Covent Garden three years ago, and the strengths of Fuchs' production at Holland Park are enough to recommend it. As for the weather, that can only get better, can’t it?