Pelléas et Mélisande (Grimeborn at the Arcola)
Debussy's symbolist masterpiece is the surprise hit of London's cheekiest summer opera festival
The idea of staging Debussy's elusive masterpiece in downtown Dalston is pretty wild – almost as eccentric as mounting Wagner's Ring cycle in a converted Gloucestershire barn. But that Longborough Festival vision came true and so does this. The Arcola Theatre's production of Pelléas et Mélisande (in partnership with Bury Court Opera) is an impossible dream made flesh.
The first question with any performance of this trancelike symbolist opera is: are the singers up to it? Here, in the case of the three principals, the answer is an emphatic yes. Their French is good (there are surtitles) and the vocal calibre is consistently high.The appropriately youthful Simon Wallfisch as Pelléas copes effortlessly with Debussy's taxing baryton-martin writing (the role sits so high for a baritone that it's sometimes taken by a tenor) and sustains his energy throughout some intensely physical acting. Ilona Domnich, a distracted, other-worldly Mélisande, has an exquisite, even tone. She could happily sing the role on any of the world's stages, and in due course she probably will.
The third member of the drama's central love-triangle, Golaud, is brought to terrifying, bear-like life by Alan Ewing, who plays the character's conflicting passions with a fierce voice and a howling soul. If some the minor characters make less of an impression by comparison, that is the fault of their relative youth rather than any deficiency on their part.
The absence of an orchestra might seem fatal in an opera where colour is more important than melody, but pianist and music director Philip Voldman treats the score like an extended art song, accompanying his singers with exemplary taste and sensitivity.
The Swiss-Turkish director Aylin Bozok understands Pelléas et Mélisande better than most directors who've tackled its mysteries. Using minimal resources she conjures up a forest, a castle and a cave as well as the tower from which Mélisande lets down her hair.
Like Maeterlinck's original play, the production is rich in its own moments of enigma, which is as it should be. The simplest ideas are often the most telling: Mélisande's mortal injury, for example, is etched on her face like cracks in a broken porcelain doll.
Bozok overrides Debussy's stage directions by introducing Golaud's son Yniold (an ideally cast Lucy Roberts) into the scene where Mélisande loses her wedding ring, and making the two of them jointly responsible for its loss during a careless game of catch. This clever conceit, which fits in snugly with later textual references, highlights the heroine's childlike naïvety in failing to foresee the consequences of her actions.
It's a production full of such simple, carefully-considered points of interpretation. They don't all succeed but every one of them is theatrically bold and psychologically intriguing.
With only two further performances in London (on 23 and 24 August) and one at Bury Court Opera in Surrey on 18 September, the few remaining tickets to this probing new production are likely to be at a premium – and deservedly so.