Pelléas et Mélisande, Festival Theatre<br></br>Bejun Mehta/Kevin Murphy, Queen's Hall<br></br>Capriccio, Usher Hall<br></br>Simon Keenlyside/Malcolm Martineau, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Got a cryptic opera? Why not make it totally obscure?
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The Independent Culture

In a city temporarily bent double by laughter and liver-damage, it is odd to find oneself soberly attempting to unpick an obscurantist production of an already elliptical opera. Did I resent an evening of bemusement at Pelléas et Mélisande while the rest of Edinburgh played? Not exactly. Musically it was sound. Visually it was bold. Dramatically it was riveting. But the Hanover State Opera Pelléas is more a companion to Debussy's masterpiece than a realisation of it.

The message in Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's production appears to be this: pot-smoking parents who meditate in the corridors of your family home can fuck you up like the best of them. Arkel (Xiaoliang Li) and Geneviève (Danielle Grima) are prosperous Sixties-style liberals with a demonstrably healthy sex-life, a handsome collection of classic modern furniture, and a poor sense of boundaries. Golaud (Oliver Zwarg) is a serial sex-pest. Pelléas (Will Hartmann) is perpetually pre-pubescent. Grandchild Yniold (a stunning Sunhae Im) may or may not have been abused by Golaud, while the enigmatic Mélisande (Alla Kravchuk) may or may not be an economic migrant who stumbled into her husband while working as an office cleaner.

Having hung so much detail on a pop-Freudian poor-parenting back-story, the narrative of Pelléas has nowhere to go - however well-observed the acting. So much is invested in the "why" that there is no room for the "what". Mélisande's arrival cannot ignite a crisis in a dysfunctional vacuum, and so divorced are style and language that every character appears to speak in code. "Your hair is falling in the water!" sings Hartmann to Kravchuk; a woman whose neat bob would be hard pushed to fall to her shoulder-blades, let alone to an imaginary rock-pool in the brilliant white linoleum floor of her blow-crazy father-in-law's minimalist live-work mansion. In this context he might as well have sung "The squirrel is holding firm!" and would likely have got away with it in a cast with only one Francophone singer and a habit of pronouncing larmes as lah-may. But I digress. You see, in Pelléas et Mélisande what is voiced is rarely what is actually meant. And adding a further layer of misinformation not only obfuscates Debussy's suggestive original but undermines an otherwise absorbing domestic tragedy in the style of Woody Allen's more serious movies.

"I love that... I love that..." murmured counter-tenor Bejun Mehta at the close of Heidenröslein, his puppyish features squeezed into a beatific emoticon. But what did he mean? Schubert's song? The sound of his own voice in the final stanza? Or the natural high of having an audience eating from the palm of his hand? Not since the birth of the Prince Philip cargo cult on Vanuatu has a human being been worshipped with such guileless awe. But so exquisitely choreographed was every aspect of Mehta's recital - the off-the-cuff chit-chat, the boyish hands-in-pocket stance, the casually untucked crisp white shirt, the conversational hand-gestures, the long poetic profile-shots, the rapt gaze to middle-distance, and the cute-camp pre-encore reference to Gone with the Wind - that the elderly ladies of Edinburgh could be forgiven for thinking that he had also created the shafts of sunlight that streaked the Queen's Hall last Saturday morning.

American recitalists generally fall into one of two camps: the hippy-dippy share-the-moment spiritualists and the polished professionals. But Mehta is a new breed; offering an approximation of unguarded informality within a whole as tightly produced and professionally charming as a Rob Reiner rom-com. Remember Meg Ryan's career-defining moment in When Harry met Sally? Exactly. Let your hair down by all means, but be sure it looks good on camera! To some, Metha's feel-good recital will have plumbed the depths of prima la voce self-indulgence. (Was the Heidenröslein ice-breaker genuinely spontaneous? Its dramatic juxtaposition with Der Tod und das Mädchen will not have passed unnoticed.) Singing through an Ultrabrite smile rarely aids clear diction and his core vocal colour owes more to that of Barbra Streisand than that of Andreas Scholl: a glowing, purring, soft-palate croon like vintage brandy lulled in a crystal balloon. But is this glossiness of sound and presentation such a bad thing? With the exception of one rather tasteless rallentando in Litanei - barely caught by pianist Kevin Murphy - Mehta's programme was as immaculately and seductively cut as his suit: honed and toned and punctuated to perfection from the variously conversational, dramatic and philosophical lieder of Mozart, Schubert and Wolf to the suburban idylls of Quilter and Finzi. So he practises in front of a mirror? So what? A little red-carpet glamour never hurt anyone's career.

Strauss wrote several operas about opera, the last of which - Capriccio - was given in concert by conductor Leopold Hager and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. With Soile Isokoski's sweet-voiced Countess almost entirely buried in her score - learn that part, girl! - the performance instead belonged to the irrepressible Siegfried Vogel (La Roche) and Anne Sofie von Otter (Clairon) and young charmers Jonas Kaufmann (Flamand) and Christopher Maltman (Olivier): four singers with charisma enough to overcome a badly managed orchestral balance in the dazzling central octet. Despite Isokoski's apparent unfamiliarity with the ensembles and Hager's inability to curb the enthusiasm of the RSNO, this was as beguiling an introduction to this wonderfully concise and fascinating work as I could imagine. Love at first hearing.

Which leaves space for barely a nod to the absolute artistry of Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau; whose Schumann lieder followed Capriccio. As stripped of theatricality as Mehta's recital was laden with it, their performance occupied a plane of concentration, engagement, seriousness and intensity that is timeless. Do I believe that Keenlyside's sudden intake of breath on the playout of Alte Laute was rehearsed? Not for one second.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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