OPERA / A house divided against itself

Pellas and Mlisande Opera North, Leeds
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Opera North's first staging of Debussy's only opera is sponsored by the Friends of the company, who make a point of supporting works of doubtful audience appeal. The warmth of the reception was richly deserved but unexpected, for this subtle, sad opera appears in a staging that pulls no punches and adds a few of its own; a staging, moreover, that resists invitations in the libretto and music to indulge in spectacle. The producer, Richard Jones, concentrates on the characters, while implying that the milieu of which they speak (rampant forests, a castle with a tower) is unreal or of only symbolic importance.

Anthony McDonald's sets place the royals of Allemonde in a childlike model house with three cells (rather than rooms). During Debussy's enthralling interludes, magnificently played by the orchestra under Paul Daniel, the drop-curtain shows the house from above, in a desert by the sea; drawn with disconcerting crudity and dangerously tilted, it dominates the dark outdoor scenes. Internally bright as a hospital, the house comes to symbolise the cruelty and isolation in which the tragedy unfolds.

The only remnants of fairy-tale are the long dress and crown that Mlisande wears at her entrance. Otherwise, Nicky Gillibrand's costumes are all economy, and mainly monochrome, so that the lovers stand out, Pellas in pastel green, Mlisande with Gustave Moreau red hair setting off an unnatural pallor. In Act 5 Golaud, emotionally stripped by jealousy, appears in little more than a body-stocking. White sheets are a motif, with Mlisande dying in one cell, while Pellas's blood stains his sheet-cum-shroud in the next.

A minor inconsistency here: at the end of Act 4, we have seen Golaud briefly caressing his brother before dropping his body into the bottomless well, a sharp touch that replaces his usual pursuit of Mlisande.Those with preconceived ideas, and sticklers for correspondence between text and action may find such details irritating. Mlisande's hair is not long, and does not fall from the window to entice Pellas outside, for they are in the same room. But this gives their now imaginary game an erotic charge lacking in a more literal representation. The whole staging eschews beauty but is the more moving for that, and the immediacy of the drama is strongly projected in Hugh Macdonald's translation, virtually every word of which was audible.

There is beauty enough on the musical side, which impressively increases the range of achievement of the principals. Joan Rodgers takes what vocal opportunities the role of Mlisande can offer: singing on her back seems to present no problem, nor does it restrict her variety of colour. Otherwise the characterisation is most developed by standing still; rare moments of emotion, as when she and Pellas are locked outside the castle gates, become revelations. William Dazeley is not the first baritone to brave Pellas, nominally a tenor role. He negotiated the high tessitura with skill and even elegance, the very difficulty enhancing Pellas's nave vitality. Scarcely less remarkable is Clive Bayley's Arkel, nobly intoning useless wisdom until at the end, in a comfortless spectacle of infirmity, he stands tottering with a tiny baby in his arms. But the performance of the evening, vocally and histrionically, was Robert Hayward's powerful Golaud, fully realising, through violent contrasts of mood, the portrait of jealousy and self-deception that is Debussy's greatest dramatic achievement.

n In rep to 27 May, Grand Theatre, Leeds (0113 245 9351), and on tour