Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pelléas et Mélisande, Glyndebourne, 1998 – Part 2: Relax and Float Downstream

John Tomlinson
So, what the heck is this opera about anyway? Golaud is so angry. He is abusive and bullying, especially towards Ynoild and Mélisande.  Did he abuse his first wife, or did his personality change due to anger and grief over her…death? …abduction? …escape? …nervous breakdown? He’s dismissive of the young lovers—maybe he is in denial about their romance—referring them to as children engaging in child’s play. 

When Golaud forces his son to spy on them—instead of hoisting the boy up to look in a window—he breaks a pane of glass in floor, and forces Yniold’s head down to look in on them. Maybe Golaud is actually Bluebeard. That might explain his frustration; he is supposed to be the one with the secrets. 

No matter how I look at it, I think this the opera is really about Golaud. The love story is sweet and tragic, and we root for Pelléas and Mélisande. But the romance is seen primarily through Golaud's eyes (or mind). Graham Vick's direction emphasizes this. Golaud storms around his castle yelling, threatening, and physically abusing his family; everyone around him moves as if what happens next is inevitable, no matter what they do. And it seems even Golaud is not really in control. At the end of the first scene (below), he tells Mélisande, "I'm lost too."

Ultimately, whatever one thinks about this particular staging, the music is undeniably well presented. The outstanding cast is mostly British singers, with a German soprano and an American tenor in the title roles. Christine Oelze is a beautiful, lyrical, vulnerable Mélisande, even hanging upside down—and willing to be physically vulnerable, too. I think Richard Croft is unequaled in anything he does, and he makes a strong argument for tenor Pelléas, with a virile and youthful sound. His Pelléas is a stark contrast to John Tomlinson’s stern, solid Golaud. I’m also glad to hear/see a boy soprano, Jake Arditti, as Ynoild (instead of a woman pretending to be a little boy).

Because there are no set changes—everything takes place in the great room of this castle—all of Debussy’s beautiful interludes are stagedin a contemplative manner, under low light, showing life going on in the house of Golaud. These interludes and the rest of the piece are played lushly by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Davis’ leadership. So, don’t let the unusual setting keep you away. Turn off your mind (a little) relax and float downstream with Maeterlinck and Debussy into the sad, strange, vague, impressionistic world of Pelléas et Mélisande.

Pelléas et Mélisande Act 1, Scene 1
   Mélisande – Christine Oelze, Golaud  – John Tomlinson

P.S. My previous encounter with this opera was Laurent Pelly’s Theater-an-der-Wien staging—which the complainers probably would like better—with representative bits of tree trunks, walls, and stairs on a huge turntable. It’s beautiful and the performance is touching—just as moving as this one.

Read Part 1: Turn Off Your Mind...

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