Triumph of an eerie operatic eroticism

Pelléas and Mélisande | Coliseum, London Christopher Maltman | Wigmore Hall, London Riccardo Chailly & LSO | Barbican, London
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The Independent Culture

When Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande was premiered in Paris in 1902, its lack of operatic overstatement puzzled the audience, to the extent that Mélisande's line "Je ne suis pas heureuse" (I am not happy) caused laughter: characters in opera were supposed to express themselves more forcefully than that. Debussy amended it to "Je suis malheureuse" (I am unhappy), and sure enough, the audience no longer laughed.

When Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande was premiered in Paris in 1902, its lack of operatic overstatement puzzled the audience, to the extent that Mélisande's line "Je ne suis pas heureuse" (I am not happy) caused laughter: characters in opera were supposed to express themselves more forcefully than that. Debussy amended it to "Je suis malheureuse" (I am unhappy), and sure enough, the audience no longer laughed.

Of such minute shades of emphasis is Pelléas and Mélisande constructed. Hugh Macdonald's published translation for English National Opera restores the "I am not happy", although if my ears did not deceive me, Joan Rodgers's Mélisande sang "I'm so unhappy" at last Thursday's first night. These days the opera's blend of the mundane, the bizarre and the invisible no longer seems so strange, although it can still raise a laugh when least required, usually when Mélisande allows her hair to tumble from on high to engulf Pelléas.

In Richard Jones's staging, first seen at Opera North in 1995 and now adapted and developed for ENO, that scene radiates a palpable eroticism, partly because, here as throughout, Jones and his designers (sets by Antony McDonald, costumes by Nicky Gillibrand) feel no need to take this most unliteral opera literally. Mélisande's hair is long, but not long enough to reach the ground from a first-floor window. Yet Pelléas buries his head in it like a fetishist playing sex games, and not a snigger was heard.

Not every moment works as well, but Jones and, particularly, McDonald have looked carefully at the world of the opera, and of the Maeterlinck play on which it's based, and have come up with a visual equivalent that dispenses with pictorial detail in order to create its own dream atmosphere (the "atmosphere de rêve" which Debussy demanded). The castle that contains most of the action is no more than a child's sketch of a house, the rooms within so small they might be cells: every character is in internal solitary confinement. McDonald's Act Five set shows three separate rooms, in each of which a different mental anguish is taking its toll, each sufferer knowing nothing of the others. Throughout, these people speak at, rather than to, each other, and when two of them (Pell and Mél) manage a genuine relationship, they die for it.

On this first night, at least, the music fared less well than the drama. Certainly conductor Paul Daniel outlines the eerie contours of Debussy's orchestral drama with the requisite subtlety, but his singers render the composer's melodic flow more prosaic than conversational. Only Joan Rodgers seemed fully engaged with the idiom. Her Mélisande is a chaste flirt so seductive that even doddery old Arkel becomes a drooling lech. Rather too much of the rest of the singing is full-out operatic, although Robert Hayward's Golaud has the raging intensity to convince us he is indeed an abuser and murderer. If he and Gerry Magee (Pelléas) can locate the opera's rarefied lyricism, while still singing as clearly, this will develop into an important production.

In a world chock-full of exciting baritones, Christopher Maltman ranks as promising without yet having scaled the heights, although that may well come. His Wigmore Hall programme last Monday showed the promise quite clearly, while also suggesting there's more to achieve. In the first of Fauré's "Five 'Venetian' Melodies", the phrase "nos sens extasies" suggested rapture just barely held in check, and when "To Clymene" ended with the words "Ainsi soit-il!" (So be it!), Maltman's note of resigned acceptance was just right. By contrast, he, like the singers at the Coliseum, had problems with Debussy's prosody. While the range of colours at Maltman's disposal in "Four Baudelaire Poems" was impressive, it was as if individual shades had not yet blended to the desired effect.

After the interval, we got a clearer sense of his undoubted talent. Eight composers and four languages in 40 minutes should be a hodge-podge, but Maltman plans his recitals with care, and what he'd assembled was no random anthology but an evolving portrait of a soldier's life, from Mahler's "Reveille" ( Des knaben Wunderhorn) through the pained nostalgia of Ivor Gurney's "In Flanders" to Poulenc's hopeless optimism in "April Moon", in which "all the guns have been destroyed".

The theme played to Maltman's strength, which is narrative drama, and he sounded quite at home in each of the languages (English, French, German, Russian). Pianist Malcolm Martineau hammered out the militaristic rhythms with joyful gusto, but neither he nor Maltman is a mere barnstormer and without falling prey to exaggeration they communicated a real sense of emotional trajectory. It's one thing to assemble an imaginative programme, quite another to make it work, but in his moving soldier's tale Maltman managed both.

There was yet more Debussy last Sunday when two Nocturnes opened Riccardo Chailly's concert with the London Symphony Orchestra. In Nuages (Clouds), the strings played with superfine delicacy, as if reluctant to let the sounds escape into the air; Fêtes was a small miracle of tension and exuberance held in balance. From there it was a surprisingly small step to Edgard Varÿse, represented not by the usual vast orchestral machine but by three songs with accompaniment for small orchestra. The voice was not really Varÿse's instrument, and Mireille Delunsch sometimes struggled with the punishing sounds demanded, but the LSO was again superb, notably in the brass and percussion mutterings that opened the second of the two Offrandes (Offerings).

The LSO would make a hair-raising job of Varÿse at his most monumental, but Chailly opted instead for safer box-office with Mahler's First Symphony. Not that Chailly played it safe: the massive tread of the third movement's marche macabre can rarely have been more chilling, while the climatic rush for the precipice was both cathartic and numbing. There are Mahler performances in which the solo contributions seem disembodied, as if picked out in the glare of a spotlight. Here, Chailly's sound perspective seemed utterly natural. Yes, we heard David Pratt's horn or Kurt-Hans Goedicke's timpani as solo instruments, but they emerged organically from the rich orchestral textures. The whole thrilling performance was greeted with the kind of jubilant adoration usually reserved for pop stars.

Pelléas and Mélisande: Coliseum, WC2 (020 7632 8300) to 8 April

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