Go down to the woods today: Pelléas et Mélisande at Grimeborn

“She was a poor, mysterious little creature, just like anyone else…” When the ageing Prince Golaud finds the beautiful Mélisande crying beside a well in the forest, he is instantly smitten. He asks her, begs her to come away with him. When she asks where he would take her, he replies he does not know; he is lost himself. Thus begins Debussy’s only opera: a heartbreaking story of love, obsession and betrayal. Part fairytale (our heroine, a princess with long golden hair worthy of Rapunzel, soon finds herself in a dark, cold, gloomy castle which the sun never quite seems to reach), part glorious psychodrama worthy of Ibsen, this contemplative, dreamlike opera will keep you under its spell from the first note to the last.

Rapunzel - Emma Florence Harrison - c. 1914

Arcola Theatre’s coproduction with Bury Court Opera, directed by Aylin Bozok, is a masterclass in restrained intensity. The staging is utterly minimalist; the forest well, for example, is described by a simple circle of white sand, which gradually blurs as we leave the pure air of the forest for the putrid, stifling atmosphere of the castle. Later, the fountain in the garden is simply a pool of white light on an otherwise dark stage, bordered by one thin strip of water. Maeterlinck’s libretto is obsessed by dark and light, youth and death, and his characters yearn in turns for the sea and the sun: this elemental consciousness, central to the work, is clearly expressed here by Joshua Pharo’s dramatic lighting, while the libretto itself comes across with wonderful clarity. The French accents of Golaud (Alan Ewing), Mélisande (Ilona Domnich) and Pelléas (Simon Wallfisch) are especially good. Surtitles are subtly and tastefully provided throughout (although one slight bugbear – the translation needs a good proofread, as it contains several typos!).

This was my first ever encounter with Pelléas et Mélisande, and though I had high hopes I was quite unprepared for the sheer, rapturous beauty of Debussy’s music. It is slow, soft and dreamlike for much of the time, becoming darkly threatening at moments of high drama. There is constant, brilliant interplay between the words and the music: often, one character will ask another if they can ‘see’ something (e.g. the sun setting over the sea), and we immediately hear it in the score. Perhaps this means the constant references to blindness in the opera apply to us, too; we imagine whatever the characters are seeing, but we rely on our ears, not our eyes, to know what it is they see. Philip Voldman, our pianist throughout, played with unstinting passion, energy and delicacy for the entire performance, and deserves the highest praise. The piano was soft, haunting and plangent: full of colours and shadows.

The singing was also wonderful from this small, strong cast, and so was their acting. Alan Ewing was excellent as the troubled, desperate, bullying Golaud. Ilona Domnich (who reminded me very much, in looks, of the American actress Reese Witherspoon) was a beautiful, ethereal Mélisande, whose steady disconnection from the world she portrayed with moving pathos in the first four acts, while the fifth act saw her finally become a living doll, strapped into a wheelchair with a spidering porcelain-crack on her forehead, singing with eerie stillness and remarkable poise. She gave a frankly spellbinding performance. Simon Wallfisch was a delight as her unhappy lover Pelléas, singing with tone and tenderness, while conveying a tangible eroticism on stage which gave their forbidden love a profound, and believable, sensuality. Carris Jones was a reserved, anxious Geneviève, Lucy Roberts a charmingly young and nervous boy-Yniold, brilliantly childlike and adrift in a mess of adult passions around him; Justin Bindley was a comforting and avuncular doctor.

The only character I could not quite get to grips with was Arkel: this is no criticism of Oliver Hunt, who sang the part very well, but here I just couldn’t quite follow the directoral ethos. Arkel’s part is benign in theory, but he was presented and played here as a malevolent figure; I can see what Aylin Bozok intended, and the final, macabre tableau of dolls and dead bodies seemed to incriminate him in the ultimate destruction of – well – all characters barring Arkel. So far, so justified; yet I’m still not sure whether I find this directoral decision convincing. Surely, Love is the destroying angel of this opera. For me, there is a big difference between leaving elegant room for doubt, and creating chasms of confusion for the work to tumble into, and here, for my taste, the gap is just too wide to work. While I do have sympathy with the theory, I felt that the part should have been developed more one way or the other for this brave idea to really function.

Nevertheless, my personal reservations about that one aspect of the approach did not prevent me from enjoying every note of this beautiful, powerful, mysterious production. If anything, I just want to see it again. Imaginative staging, brilliant acting, superb singing, horrifying finale: this fantastic production brings Maeterlinck’s philosophical fairytale to glorious life, in a minimalist vision which allows the myriad images of Debussy’s beautiful music to glow and shine.

Read my review on One Stop Arts here

21st August 2013

Grimeborn Festival

Arcola Theatre

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