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Friday 18 March 2011

Old news: an indulgence

If you'll not mind the indulgence, I want to post a year old review, referenced in the last post, which never made it into print. It's clumsily written, but my admiration comes across. I remain completely in awe of the achievement of these students:

Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande is an operatic experience quite unlike any other, truly Sui generis, the antithesis of the clichées of fat ladies, histrionics and melodrama that forms the basis of so much standard operatic fare. It is one of the most beautiful of all operatic scores, possessing a uniquely rarefied air, a subtlety of scoring, pungency of harmony and delicacy of atmosphere of an order and type that is without real precedent (pace Parsifal) or true successor (pace Ravel) in the operatic repertoire.

The staging was a bold one - monocrome hues of blue and grey lit a set redolent of a decaying urban wasteland, with costumes hinting at a similarly grim setting - some kind of terrifyingly beautiful dystopian future, a civilisation at its nadir. The various set items were completely static and unchanging throughout the opera which served to superbly illustrate the many common threads, allusions and portents that riddle the plot - the bed of passion becomes the sick bed, the well becomes the stagnant pool. The characters drifted listlessly through the haze in almost agonising stillness in the first half, a fearful coolness and pall of sickness veiling their actions, with the deeply symbolic plot being revealed in the harshest and most unsettling way. At first the starkness of the cold dim lighting and industrial set seemed at complete odds with Debussy's sumptuous music but it actually served to highlight and strengthen the human interactions - the faces, hair and hands of the cast taking on an almost heightened softness and luminosity such that the tiniest actions took on the greatest expression and emotion.

The second half contains the emotional core of the opera and was a welcome respite after the first half, the subtle delicacy of the sung text and orchestral texture elevated to heights of immense emotion and drama. A particular highlight was the tower scene, perhaps the finest moment in the opera, here almost unbearably intimate and tender, so beautifully sensual and understated in its eroticism - truly superb singing, acting and directing on show here.

The cast was extremely strong, not just in their singing abilities but also in their acting. Gwilym Bowen's Pelléas, the ineffectual and effeminate non-hero of the opera was wonderfully characterised, Bowen singing with great sensitivity throughout. Choosing to cast Pelleas as a light lyric tenor was an inspired choice: this coupled with the bleakness of the production brilliantly accentuated the character's youthful ardour and hapless naivity.

Golaud's tortured outbursts were wonderfully handled by Christopher Dollins, whose relationship with Louise Kemeny's Melisande had real substance. Kemeny sang beautifully throughout, again characterising the youthful Melisande's flitting lyricism and ineffectualness with sophisticated style. Arkel's elliptical orations were delivered with powerful gravitas by Christopher Law and Josephine Stevenson's Yniold was puckish and charming.

Debussy's fragrant tissues of sound were conjured with great skill and exactitude by conductor Christopher Stark with the orchestra he had assembled allowing the intoxicating perfume of orchestral colours to bloom, hum and ripple. The orchestral playing was uniformly of a very high standard, with wonderful points of colour and a real efficacy on the later nights.

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