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)