Review: Pelléas et Mélisande (Glyndebourne)

Glyndebourne makes itself at home in a bizarre staging of Debussy’s only full-length opera

Christopher Purves as Golaud and
Christina Gansch as Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande (Glyndebourne)
Christopher Purves as Golaud and
Christina Gansch as Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande (Glyndebourne)
© Richard Hubert Smith

If you were beguiled by an obscure object of desire, would you tar and feather it? Thought not. Yet that's effectively what the Norwegian director Stefan Herheim has done to Debussy's fragile opera, diminishing it with imagery from a flighty mind.

Once again Glyndebourne appears on its own stage, as it also did in Katharina Thoma's comparably woeful Ariadne auf Naxos. I'm imagining pitch meetings in the Organ Room where unprepared directors gaze around them and busk out random ideas, Keyser Söze-style. 'Great', say the suits. ‘We're flattered. You're hired.'

Pelléas et Mélisande is an elusive work that Debussy adapted from a play by the Belgian Symbolist writer, Maurice Maeterlinck. With its natural speech-inflected rhythms and pared-back melodic language the opera can be a tough nut for audiences to crack on first hearing, but once you're in its thrall it can haunt you for life. Yet the outline couldn't be simpler. Man encounters amnesiac girl in forest, rescues her and marries her, but loses his rag when she falls for his brother.

Debussy's orchestrations are miraculous – somehow airy and dense at the same time – and Glyndebourne's music director Robin Ticciati clearly loves them. Too much, if anything, since he encourages the upholstered London Philharmonic Orchestra to swamp his singers at every swell. As if they didn't have enough to contend with coming out of the director's head.

Herheim opens his account with the company gathered in the aforementioned Organ Room to mourn poor dead Pelléas. He then stays in situ for the next three hours of flashback – give or take the occasional swing-around of Philipp Fürhofer's photorealistic set – to smear the opera in his own brand of indulgent whimsy. At least it is all magnificently lit by Tony Simpson in tandem with Herheim himself, including one eye-popping video effect where the entire stage shimmers into jelly.

The director's pervading tic is to play against the text. Early on, Mélisande (the Austrian soprano Christina Gansch) beseeches her rescuer Golaud (Christopher Purves) not to touch her, yet promptly delivers her own tactile overkill. Thereafter the paradoxes keep on coming, too numerous to list here. Outdoors is always inside, intimate scenes are witnessed by silent watchers, death is only a relative condition.

The explanation for all this? Herheim's interpretation is seen through the mind's eye of a damaged Golaud, a man whose obsession with Mélisande fuels his jealousy to the extent that he may be imagining the entire romance between the titular pair. In his agitation he even confuses his wife with his son, Yniold (Chloé Briot, a seasoned interpreter of this role) and attempts to rape the child.

If this challenging opera is rendered doubly nebulous by the director, at least it is well sung. Gansch and John Chest are plausible and attractive as the lovers and maintain vocal grace despite being overwhelmed from the pit. Purves handles Golaud's ferocity well and transcends his less-than-perfect French with a fearless stage presence, while Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill is in sumptuous voice for her brief role as Geneviève.

Brindley Sherratt, who doubles up in this Glyndebourne season as both Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier and now Arkel in Pelléas, was beset with a throat infection and unable to sing at the premiere. Fortunately the distinguished Richard Wiegold stepped in and lent his colleague some rich bass notes from the side, so all was well. If only the same could be said of the production.