OPERA / The look of a faded photograph: Nick Kimberley reviews Pelleas et Melisande at the Royal Opera House

WHAT kind of place is Allemonde, the mysterious land where Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande takes place? Debussy wrote of the 'atmosphere de reve', the dream-atmosphere without which the opera could not live. That has often been taken as a prescription for ethereal imprecision, yet dreams - like the opera - abound in minute details, any one of which may become crucial. Throughout, the singers tell each other things that may or may not impinge on the narrative: that Golaud has grey hair, that Pelleas' friend is dying, as is his father, that there is a famine in the land, that the flowers have been watered. And then there are the twists and turns of the family tree that entwines every character.

A stage director must decide how much of this detail to represent: too little, and the opera's intense physicality evaporates; too much, and it becomes overly literal, as at the moment when Melisande's hair cascades over Pelleas and the audience almost inevitably titters. It's as if Debussy were writing for a gramophone opera, providing detail for the listener's imagination. Indeed, the Royal Opera House seems to have heeded the opera's status as 'ideal gramophone opera', casting Francois Le Roux (from Claudio Abbado's recording) as Pelleas, Frederica Von Stade (from Karajan's) as Melisande, with Abbado himself conducting.

But this is the theatre, and this production (by the late Antoine Vitez, first seen in Vienna, here revived by Lorenzo Mariani) strives to establish a true stage language. The key motif of Yannis Kokkos' sets is a sequence of circles within circles, recalling the iris of a camera, through which we view the action. Colour is washed out to a dark monochrome. The silent-movie style is emphasised by the dully shimmering black curtain which, sweeping like a wave across the proscenium, acts like a cinematic wipe or dissolve during the interludes.

In other ways the production is closer to a photograph: what we see remains unchanged through each scene, the sets' two-dimensionality pushing the singers forward, allowing them little room to interact, as if they have been trapped in a frozen image. Much of the intensity derives from staring eyes and sharp gestures (a little too like a silent movie).

Costumes follow an elementary colour-code: Pelleas and Melisande in creamy white, suggesting their status as wronged innocents; the rest in shades of black, an overemphatic division. Somewhat arbitrarily, Arkel's status as King of Allemonde is suggested by a priest's dog-collar. The sombre, rolling sea is never far away, its presence signalled in that shimmering curtain as well as on the stage itself. If this creates the necessary air of oppressiveness, it seems to leave the singers too oppressed to project the tragedy.

Von Stade is a fine Melisande, no seductive waif but a grown woman struggling against those who would possess her. The voice is full and firm, the detail sharp - and no one laughed when her hair tumbled from the tower. Le Roux is less convincing as Pelleas. The only Francophone in the cast, he sings his French no more clearly than Von Stade, and his vocal line is often ill-defined. As the possessive Golaud, Victor Braun summons impressive bouts of rage, but too often the voice is a small perturbation deep in the orchestra. Robert Lloyd's Arkel is approximate in accent and singing, the bass tones veiled by a nasal quality that often afflicts non-French singers singing French.

And so it's left to Abbado to etch the musical line through the orchestra, which he does splendidly. The interludes, where so much of the urgency lies, expand marvellously, a luxurious contrast to the starkness of the stage images. The string sound is rich and lustrous, the wind instruments skittishly light. One of the received views of Pelleas et Melisande is that all the drama is in the orchestra. That shouldn't be the case: on this occasion it too nearly was.

ROH, London WC2 (071-240 1066).

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride