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This has become one of my favorite productions of a favorite
After countless viewings I am still stunned by it. I was initially put off by Graham Vick's comments that he had set the entire opera in one giant Victorian style room ... but within minutes after the curtain rose, I found myself watching a cast who obviously and absolutely believed in this vision and the result was - in every sense - simply stunning.
Contrary to my positive opinion was the intermission feature, featuring a panel of "critics," including legendary director Ken Russell, all of whom complained that the work was being stifled by this production. One commentator stated to the effect that "Sadly, one needs the castles and the forests, etc." because "Debussy's music is so ethereal and light and you want to be drawn into it, but you can't because you're stopped by this dark, oppressive set which I find a directorial imposition which frankly in this work we don't need ..." Ken Russell continued in similar vein commenting that the libretto is a difficult thing and hard to understand, and how even though he's not a fan of Pelleas ("Debussy was not at his artistic height here ... I find the music too strident" ... oh, please, Ken) that he too felt Vick was making his presence too intrusive and self-serving ... odd words coming from Ken Russell. Russell also pronounced that it took Debussy nine years to complete the opera, when all sources I've consulted state "two years." They all sounded like prissy old farts and acted like the 107 year old Pelleas was some strange new thing that still must somehow be taken literally.
Well, for me this was an illuminating production of an opera I've always loved.
Richard Croft was a revelation as Pelleas, truly boyish and Vick's touches (i.e., Pelleas is barefoot throughout Act I - in scene iii he's in shorts and playing with Yniold on the beach) do wonders for . With such gorgeous, youthful sound, warm and bright, I think the case can be made that this role is now best suited to a tenor, making the distinction between Golaud and Pelleas even stronger. Croft's facial expressions, the youthful ability to swing between ecstatic exhilirating joy to being crushed, the physicality of his actions in the "Tower" scene all would seem to make him the Pelleas of choice.
The "Tower Scene" finds Melisande perched high above the stage in an enormous globe-style chandelier ... dazzling! The chandelier lowers and Pelleas stretching, reaching up to her as her hair cascades was breathtaking... a touch of the erotic - just what the moment needs - as the chandelier lowers even more and Pelleas reclines on the floor, covered with her hair.
Golaud is the amazing John Tomlinson and he plays the role in a frighteningly real schizophrenic manner - gentle and kind, then mad and violent. The scene with Yniold is absolutely terrifying as Golaud kicks in one of the glass floor tiles and shoves his son's head down into the hole to spy on his wife and brother - Yniold finally fleeing and banging for someone - anyone to let him out of this mad house.
Those glass tiles provide wonderful effects such as when the floor lights up and flowers are everywhere, or in the grotto scene when the "sleeping" bodies are discovered (chilling). The great staircase which dominates the set is used to wonderful effect and imposes its own set of though provocation on its symbolism.
Cristian Oelze (spelling?) is a bright voiced, wonderfully neurotic Melisande and the electricity between she and Croft intensifies these roles to the point of being almost white hot.
Jean Rigby's makes Genevieve the only seemingly normal one - but what's her deal? She can't be all that together, for she remains in this palace of dysfunction too willingly.
Glyndebourne Music Director, Andrew Davis moved things along with nice flowing tempi and the orchestra responded with sound that was alternately dense and diaphanous, a beautiful performance.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For recordings of Pelleas Et Melisande the Karajan in my eyes is
unbeatable. So far on DVD, I have seen three productions, one from
1987, one from 1992 and this one. Of the three, the 1992 one with
Hagley, Archer and Maxwell conducted by Boulez was the best, with
production values reminiscent of Parsifal, a sense of out-worldliness
and superb musical values and performances. My least was the 1987 one
under Gardiner, outside of the musical values and Van Dam's Golaud, I
found the production very unattractive and very remote in its staging.
While not quite as the 1992 performance, this production from Graham
Vick is great. I admit I am more of a traditionalist myself and prefer
the more ethereal quality of the 1992 performance to match Debussy's
haunting music. But actually while not a traditional production, with
some parts that people would regard as jarring with the libretto, there
are some striking things visually about this. The Edwardian mansion
look of the sets with the massive staircase and the glass floor do have
a romantic and authentic look to them, and I did like a lot of the
symbolism, the best being the flames surrounding and engulfing the
staircase in the final scene.
The costumes don't really match the splendour of the sets but they are hardly what I call disgusting either. The lighting is very adept and atmospheric, especially when it dims and throws shadows. The staging is imaginatively done, Vick's(very like Gotz Friederich and Harry Kupfer) skill of working with singers and playing to their strengths and to that of the operas(generally) really comes through here, and very imaginatively too without being distasteful. The highlights for me were Golaud's terrifying terrorising of Ynoild, Pelleas' very emotionally intense murder and especially the (here) erotic Tower scene. The final scene is beautifully done as well. The orchestral playing give Debussy's music the characteristics it should have, especially in Pelleas' murder, only the brass on occasions show signs of unsteadiness. And Andrew Davis' conducting is just splendid, quite a spacious reading but with much harmonic depth without it overpowering what is already there in the score.
In terms of performances, I was thoroughly impressed by all. Especially good was the Golaud of John Tomlinson(I know him best from his superb Bayreuth Wotan). He as ever sings resonantly, and while not quite as multifaceted as that of Maxwell under Boulez it is all the same a powerful and sometimes chilling(especially in how he treats Ynoild) performance. Of the Ynoilds of the three productions, I give first choice for Jake Arditti here, who makes the difficult music not so at all. I don't know about you, but his appearance and how he was treated by Golaud made us somewhat repulsed but also sympathetic towards him. Gwyn Howell embodies nobility as King Arkel, and like Tomlinson despite moments where he is under-pitch he is very resonant vocally. Christine Oelze sings intelligently and made Melisande coquettish at times but often subtle. I do think that she could have been more mysterious and out-worldly though. Richard Croft may not have the most beautiful or youthful of sounds but it is hardly is unattractive and it has a flexibility that is suited for anything from Mozart to Wagner. Despite from some unidiomatic French, Croft's singing is deeply felt and strong. He is a magnetic actor as well.
Overall, a great production but for me it is second choice behind the 1992 Boulez-conducted production. 9/10 Bethany Cox
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