Pelléas et Mélisande, Glyndebourne

Death and the maiden
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The Independent Culture

Great stage design can have a profound effect on a director's work, especially in opera. In some cases - and this is one - the designer's hand is indistinguishable from the director's. Graham Vick hasn't returned to Glyndebourne to direct this revival of his 1999 staging of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande; Annilese Miskimmon has done the honours for him. But Paul Brown's magnificent set - one of the most beautiful and evocative ever to grace the Glyndebourne stage - keeps its spirit abundantly alive.

Great stage design can have a profound effect on a director's work, especially in opera. In some cases - and this is one - the designer's hand is indistinguishable from the director's. Graham Vick hasn't returned to Glyndebourne to direct this revival of his 1999 staging of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande; Annilese Miskimmon has done the honours for him. But Paul Brown's magnificent set - one of the most beautiful and evocative ever to grace the Glyndebourne stage - keeps its spirit abundantly alive.

Brown's contribution to this show is huge. Between them, he and Vick came up with a visual metaphor that serves to magically encapsulate the feeling and texture of Debussy's dream fantasy. What they did was simple. The interior and exterior worlds became one. The hearts and minds of men and the natural world that spawned them coalesced. So, when the black veil of the front curtain is lifted from the darkness we see Golaud, grandson of King Arkel, seated in what appears to be the grandest of rooms. A sweeping staircase, spiralling heavenward, dominates its centre-ground. But then Golaud says: "I shall never find my way out of this forest", and we begin to notice that the floor is transparent and undulates like water, with literally hundreds of red and yellow chrysanthemums blooming beneath it.

Huge pictures that once adorned the gilded walls appear to have melted away, perhaps symbolising the loss of identity since Golaud's wife died. A full-grown tree is encased in glass. A waterfall will cascade through the curl of the staircase. The elements have reclaimed Golaud's life and placed him at the mercy of God and nature. The girl he finds in the forest - Mélisande, a child of nature - will wither and die in his dark, suspicious, loveless world.

But not only does Brown's scenic environment work dramatically, it perfectly complements, in visual terms, the swoon of Debussy's painterly score in all its shades - now crepuscular, now fragrant, now voluptuous. You see what you hear. So, during the descent into the family tombs, the eerie light cast by "the swinging of a lantern" (Golaud's words) is mirrored in the swinging of an enormous bowl-chandelier. It is from the inside of this impressive lighting fixture that Mélisande famously emerges to let down her hair to Pelléas. (It's the cue for tittering from the less imaginative members of the Glyndebourne audience.)

The many layers of Debussy's fascinating but notoriously elusive score are peeled back by conductor Louis Langrée, whose expert direction secures diaphanous playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The casting could hardly be bettered. Central to the success of the evening is the elemental John Tomlinson as Golaud. His huge, tormented presence glowers over the proceedings - an unhappy man torn apart by loneliness, longing to be loved. The sense of menace of this force of nature is palpable; the scene where he bullies his son, Yniold (David Stark), into spying upon Pelléas and Mélisande is as chilling as I've ever seen it. Tremendous.

Powerful, too, is the Arkel of Christian Treguier, watching his grandson tear apart the family. The gravity of his performance draws heavily on the line: "If I were God, I'd take pity on the hearts of men." Then there is Russell Braun's Pelléas, a role that sits well in his mellifluous voice (with an excellent top), and the fragile beauty of Marie Arnet's mysteriously affecting Mélisande.

As she dies, and Debussy's orchestra falls silent, flames ignite the banisters of the staircase tracing the path of her soul heavenward. Breathtaking, and moving. That's what theatre can do. That's what great design can do.

Glyndebourne continues to 29 August (01273 813813)

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