Love, death and a chandelier

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The Independent Culture
IT'S A well-worn view of Maeterlinck's Pelleas et Melisande that its "obscure" symbolist, Pre-Raphaelite elements are no more than a thin veneer for a bourgeois tragedy about adultery and murder in one of those ancestral mansions later to be beloved of Agatha Christie. Debussy's opera is naturally vulnerable to the same analysis.

In his new production at Glyndebourne, Graham Vick puts flesh on the idea by setting the whole piece in the exquisite Art Nouveau salon of Chateau Golaud, somewhere not too far from (say) the Forest of Fontainebleau circa 1900. Into this effete, over-refined ambience Melisande is brought like a caged woodland bird; she is kitted out with the chatelaine wardrobe of (presumably) the first Mme Golaud; her hair is styled. But, alas, she is not happy. As an escape from her spiritual prison, she falls in love with her wanly handsome half-brother-in-law, with whom she acts out increasingly bizarre fantasies involving imaginary fountains and playing at Romeo-and- Juliet balconies using the huge hanging light in the drawing-room, until one day Golaud comes home, catches them at it, and sticks a knife into his brother.

As a recontextualisation of Maeterlinck's not-so-archetypal forest and castle, this works as well as most, and it has the advantage of a brilliantly elegant Victor Horta-style set by Paul Brown, subtly lit in reds and browns by Thomas Webster. But leaving aside certain omissions (the well, the grotto, the vault, etc), the main trouble with this reading is the music. Debussy may well have sensed the play's bourgeois undercurrents, but he didn't compose them, and his score is obsessed with precisely those elements that the chic, indoors-loving modern producer prefers to leave out: the forest murmurs, the sea, the glitter of light on water.

This rather basic problem is eloquently compounded by Andrew Davis's conducting, and by casting more than usually faithful to Debussy's picture- book conception of the story. In fact, so observant is the portraiture and so stylish the singing that you end up with the feeling of a Rossettian masquerade in which medieval characters have dressed up as fin-de-siecle townies without shaving off their beards or cutting their hair.

Gwynne Howell's Arkel, all white whiskers and solemn advice, and John Tomlinson's superbly dark-voiced, sub-Valhallan Golaud, are much in this spirit. Nor do the star-crossed Christiane Oelze (Melisande) and Richard Croft (Pelleas) inject the least hint of irony into their pointedly vacant studies of lovers, whom Debussy surely saw as Tristan and Isolde without the adrenaline. Croft's singing is particularly interesting, his timbre close to the light "baryton Martin" quality that Debussy wanted. Sean Rigby's Genevieve and especially Jake Arditti's frail Yniold catch the same exact mood of wishless poetry.

Davis's own reading senses the love and pity that Debussy poured into his wonderful music. It is mobile, flexible and soft-toned enough to allow the voices room within their narrow vocal space, beautifully played and eventually very touching in counterpoint with Vick's oblique but never less than immaculate staging.

Stephen Walsh

Box office: 01273 813813, performances to 1 Jul