Good news first, or bad? I was in the Upper Slips again for this performance, (excellent sound but a poor view of the stage) and I’m inclined to think that this was a really good choice of seat, under the circumstances.
Good first, then… People have been recommending Pelleas et Melisande to me for some time, but it’s never got anywhere near the top of my listening list. This is because, although Debussy’s flute parts are always very satisfying to play, and I can appreciate that he wrote exceptionally well for woodwind, I just don’t particularly enjoy listening to his music. It’s pleasant enough, but has never really done much for me. However, this proved to be the exception; it was lovely, gripping, truly moving, and totally knocked me for six. I’d been warned that this opera could be ‘difficult’ to get into, and that it would be advisable to do some ‘homework’ on the music and story beforehand: what complete bollocks! There’s nothing like the thrill of hearing something great for the first time, and the fact that I didn’t actually know how it was going to end only added to the dramatic tension. With Simon Rattle waving the stick, the ROH orchestra sounded as good as I’ve ever heard them (which is pretty damn good). I couldn’t pick out a particular section for specific praise, partly because there seemed to be a greater degree of coherence, creating the effect of a single musical organism.
And the bad… In my personal opinion, the staging was rubbish, the lighting harsh and the costumes ridiculous. Quite why on earth one would want to dress all the singers in white rhinestone-studded fat-suits (an unholy mix of Elvis, Pierrot, and the Michelin Man) which made them look like they all had huge arses, I do not know. This stuffing in their clothes also appeared to be constricting their movements, although that may have just been the stage direction. The set consisted of some large boxes which were twizzled round by stage crew between scenes, then opened up to reveal multiple copies of a selection of objects each chosen to point out what the director thought was the main theme, or symbol of each scene. Hence, there’s a scene where people receive letters, so we have a big box full of letters; a bit about Melisande picking flowers, so we have a big box of white flowers; a bit about Golaud being wounded, so we have a big box of pillows with a blob of red on (although this could also have signified Melisande menstruating, for all I know). One scene, for want of ideas, just had the words ‘Pelleas et Melisande’ in lights, repeated many times. I read somewhere on the internet that this was supposed to be Braille, to signify Arkel’s failing sight; however, I don’t think Braille simply consists of making normal letters out of a lot of dots. Later, there were lots of empty clothes; this actually looked quite spooky, but Satyagraha did it better. Not that I particularly wanted realism in terms of forests, water, etc., but the neon-lit shop-window display look just didn’t seem to go with the music or story. IMO.
Dressing Melisande in a slinky red dress was an interesting decision, perhaps signifying less the ethereal innocent and something more like Carmen, first bewitching one man, then tiring of him and swiftly moving on to the next, with bloody consequences. This would seem to fit with Angela Kirchschlager’s interpretation, which I am lead to believe was unusually ‘gutsy’ (although I cannot make comparisons). Of course, one main difference between the characters is that Carmen is bluntly honest, whereas Melisande blithely admits to deceiving and lying to Golaud. I was thinking that she really is a dislikeable character, totally self-centred and amoral – although it did occur to me later that perhaps this was unfair, and that her unreasonable behaviour sprung from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. While not condoning Golaud’s violence, I can quite see why he got so pissed off with her – although that may have had something to do with the wonderfully expressive, agonised portrayal of the role by Gerald Finley. His sadness, when his repeated attempts to understand her behaviour and to make her happy were ignored or thrown back at him, was moving, and his increasing irritation at her uncommunicativeness, entirely believable. I imagine I would be pretty annoyed if my wife dropped her wedding ring down a well (pool, orchestra pit, whatever) and didn’t think it important enought to mention, let alone actually apologise or express regret at the loss.
One scene that did work very well was the one where Golaud forces his small son to spy on his wife and her (suspected) lover. Finley was in full tortured misery mode by this point (again, utterly believable, and still sympathetic to some extent, despite the growing bitterness), and the boy playing the brat Yniold (George Longworth) was probably the least irritating child I’ve seen on the ROH stage (actually quite high praise, from me). P & M were stuck on chairs halfway up one of the aforementioned boxes, staring at eachother. I know I’m not selling it, but this was good.
One scene that did not work well was the bit about Melisande doing the Rapunzel bit, hanging her hair out the window to her handsome non-prince. As she didn’t have any extra hair to hang down, Pelleas (Simon Keenlyside) was left waving his arms around in some imaginary hair in the air (while also, for some reason, doing lunges). To be fair, he is an excellent actor, and gave it his best shot, but it just looked a bit daft. I decided to avert my eyes for a while, and just listen to his lovely singing (and Mr K is one of the last singers one would expect to be saying that of).
All the singers, in fact, were excellent. In addition to those already mentioned, there was Robert Lloyd as a classy Arkel, Catherine Wyn-Rogers (who I had it in my head I didn’t like – can’t remember why not) under-employed as Genevieve, and Robert Gleadow as the shepherd/doctor.
Silliest moment (apart from seeing the stupid costumes for the first time): Golaud commenting that the lovers were “kissing like a brother and sister” (or similar). Well, no, not unless the brother and sister in question were Siegmund and Sieglinde.