by Heather Leviston

Simon Rattle calls Pelleas and Melisande “one of the most addictive pieces there is… almost more drug than opera”. Being the centenary of Debussy’s death, 2018 provides an opportunity for Pelleas addicts to indulge and Melbournians don’t have to leave town to do so, thanks to Victorian Opera under its Artistic Director, Richard Mills.

Last June, Charles Dutoit conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in a splendid concert performance of what Rattle goes on to describe as “very hard to stage”. Victorian Opera recently demonstrated just how compelling a semi-staged concert performance could be with the right singers and a fine orchestra in Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues. Although Pelleas lends itself to a concert performance, a fully staged realisation has the best hope of bringing Debussy’s only opera to magical life. And that is just what VO’s production did, in association with Australian National Academy of Music at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda.

Richard Mills has acted as the young musician’s best friend for many years now. Members of  the Australian Youth Orchestra benefitted from his expert guidance for that other watery opera, Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (also with St Kilda’s seaside Palais as the venue) and AYO is also the orchestra of choice for Parsifal next year. This time the orchestra comprised the highly talented students of the Australian National Academy of Music along with a sprinkling of alumni, ANAM Faculty and guest musicians. The result was a joy to hear. Much of the time Debussy’s orchestration is confined to smaller combinations of instruments for expressive colour. This was afforded outstanding attention to detail in this performance while the surging undulations of the tuttis captured the heightened tension and passion of key moments. The cascades of the two harps, ominous lower instruments and a poignant solo violin were among a plethora of memorable effects. Focus was best directed on the orchestra during the short prelude to the opera, and the interlude music that Debussy wrote at the last minute to provide time for set changes between scenes.

The simple set required no major adjustments, but Elizabeth Hill’s imaginative direction ensured that the three quasi-towers were rotated in keeping with the overall visual concept and flowed with the music without becoming distracting. Her collaboration with set and costume designer Candice MacAllister created a world that resonated with a libretto based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, an important figure in the Symbolist movement. Mystery, ambiguity, allusion, illusion and elusion all played their part.

The three towers and the high backdrop drapes mirrored the three protagonists caught up in a triangle of love and jealousy. Hill expanded the role of the three figures that frighten Melisande in the sea cave and combined them with the servants who mysteriously appear towards the end of the opera and fall to the floor as Melisande dies. As slender, graceful beings they had more the appearance of Bluebeard’s condemned wives than the starving old women in the text. The way they revolved the towers evoked a sense of passing time – a notion that is referred to frequently. There was something of the three Fates in the turning of the Wheel of Fortune in this and in the way the curtains fell as the thread of life was cut. All of these images sat well within a text where Fate/Destiny appears to control man’s destiny. As the old, almost-blind King Arkel says to his murderous grandson, Golaud: “It is not your fault.” Pelleas speaks in terms of being in a trap that he did not perceive. Reinforcing this element is the decision to use the three women to form the circular border of the pool in the opening scene when Golaud first encounters the weeping Melisande and, later, the well where she loses her wedding ring. The device of a length of material suddenly dropping from on high to represent Melisande’s Rapunzel-like hair related to the overall design and accentuated the concept of entrapment as an ecstatic Pelleas entangled himself in Melisande’s “hair” and attempted to keep her with him by tying it to a tree embodied by one of the women.

Hill found intelligent practical solutions to a number of challenging situations thereby enabling the singers to immerse themselves more fully in the music drama. The only real reservation I had about the production was the lighting, which lacked sufficient contrast and was generally over-lit. In addition to descriptions of light in various forms, the text makes repeated use of a range of words to describe darkness, shadows and gloom and there wasn’t nearly enough of it. One advantage of this was the visibility of the singers as audience eyes flicked between the judiciously selected surtitle translations and the stage.

It is no mean feat to master such a wordy French text and rhythmically demanding music especially since, with the exception of Liane Keegan and Angus Wood, all singers were making role debuts. When Victoria State Opera mounted the work in English it took two conductors in the pit to keep things on track; Richard Divall looked after the orchestra and repetiteur Graham Cox cued in the singers. And yet, Siobhan Stagg sang as if the role of Melisande had been created especially for her. Both sopranos and mezzo-sopranos sing the role and Stagg has just the right combination of vocal colours as a soprano, enabling her to move readily between delicate, child-like sensitivity and sensuous warmth. She also looked the part and she projected the fey wide-eyed innocence of a fragile soul traumatised by mysterious events. The radiance of her singing as she combed her hair at the beginning of the Rapunzel scene was a highlight, but there was not one moment that was less than captivating.

As Pelleas (a role undertaken by both tenors and baritones) Angus Wood made a passionate partner, his ringing tenor a rich and vibrant complement to Stagg’s luminous performance. The emotional tension generated by the pair was, arguably, only surpassed by the impact of a vocally and dramatically powerful Samuel Dundas as a distraught Golaud in the final scene where he hounded Melisande with his relentless jealous questioning. It was both profoundly shocking and pitiable. So here was domestic violence mediaeval style: Golaud the hunter who had lost his way versus a serially traumatised Melisande on her deathbed. No wonder Melisande sees a bleak future for her baby daughter.

In the less central roles, Liane Keegan was a grounded figure as Genevieve, mother of the half-brother rivals, her beautiful contralto and caring demeanour a healthy counterpoint to the sickness and turmoil surrounding her. David Parkin made a commanding if somewhat static figure as Arkel, his tall frame and bass voice conveying both authority and compassion for the lot of mankind. Short of casting a treble in the role of Golaud’s young son, Yniold, it would be hard to find a better candidate for the role than Sophia Wasley. She is small, used her body to most convincing effect and sang with a clear pure soprano that carried well. Stephen Marsh, always a pleasure to hear, made the most of his small roles of Shepherd and Physician. The short passages for the sailor chorus were sung with precision and good tone.

Pelleas and Melisande is considered by many to be the trail-blazing pinnacle of French opera. This production should not be missed.

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