Pelleas and Melisande | Ladywood Leisure Centre, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

Debussy's PELLÉAS et Mélisande, first staged in Paris in April 1902, is the most delicate of operatic scores. True, its innovative harmonies can largely be traced back to the instinctive enfant terrible who unerringly needled the Paris Conservatoire establishment of the early 1880s, just as later passages fed into the piano masterworks to come.

Debussy's PELLÉAS et Mélisande, first staged in Paris in April 1902, is the most delicate of operatic scores. True, its innovative harmonies can largely be traced back to the instinctive enfant terrible who unerringly needled the Paris Conservatoire establishment of the early 1880s, just as later passages fed into the piano masterworks to come.

Yet it is Golaud, the jealous, chastened knight from some murky Merovingian past, and arguably the tragic hero of Maeterlinck's sorry tale, who nurses the principal anger here. Debussy's gossamer music spells out the underlying psychology : a gloomy underlay as packed with foreboding as Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. Using Hugh Macdonald's enabling translation, City of Birmingham Touring Opera's new staging, by Franco Ripa di Meana, making his British debut as a director, began its tour of traditional and off-beat venues on Saturday.

Although the decibels detract, it is, albeit intermittently, an intelligent and imaginative production, as compact in its gestures as Maeterlinck's economical original. It is weakest where it clouds some crucial point and, at times, is too self-consciously symbolist - the stylised struts and sideways-on postures of Felicity Hammond's Melisande fuse the cranky, original St Sebastian of Ida Rubinstein with winsome Klimt and Schiele. Arkel, cast in his spare moments as a deranged set-builder, heaps up liberal sprinklings of jet-black stone with the zeal of an ancient dolmen designer or a member of the Footplatemen's Union.

The full moon outside felt mirrored in Gideon Davey's tidy touring set, a kind of convertible cheese with a bite taken out to enfold the accompanying pianos and cantilevered ends that artfully empower sinuous exits and entrances, aptly lit in forbidding greys and blue-greens by Giuseppe di Iorio. Perversely, on more than one occasion, characters sing of "unremitting darkness" amid a stage drenched in light.

Debussy's seamless score is played in the sometimes overdense two-piano arrangement by Marius Constant. One sorely misses Debussy's caressing, magical orchestration, but the resultant clean textures are marvellously instructive. Vocally, Chris Purves's disturbing, forthrightly delivered Golaud dominates, a fusion of Verdian villain and embittered rugby hearty. Purves, who proved his mettle years ago in lighter fare, has emerged as a big villainous asset on the operatic scene, though his youthful passion still needs curbing.

Crucial to the opera's sense of deep corruption matched by voyeurism are the three Yniold scenes. The schoolboy Danny Brown (alternating the role with Jack Halsey) was not only vocally impeccable but also the shrewdest actor of the evening. Karl Daymond (as Pelleas), until recently a marvellous young baritone but now translated upwards, had awkward first-night problems with his upper tenor range.

Finest of all vocally was David Gwynne's Arkel - awesome in high bass registers and, thanks to his indefatigable stone-quarrying, a Merlin-like éminence grise, even cause, of the whole action. He moves too much like a young man but delivers like a sage.

On tour until 25 March; 0121-246 6644

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