The Critics: Music - Form follows dysfunction

Pelleas et Melisande Glyndebourne, Sussex Otello Barbican, London The Damnation of Faust Royal Festival Hall, London Pocket Opera of Nuremberg Covent Garden Festival, London
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Opera-goers don't need Bruno Bettelheim to tell them about myth as a mirror of the society that invents it. They have Jonathan Miller's Mikado, which abandoned all pretence at orientalism and exposed the piece as a palm-court gathering of English gentry. They have David Poutney's Rusalka, which read the story of the water-nymph as a nursery dream of romance and escape. Now, at Glyndebourne, they have Graham Vick's new Pelleas et Melisande, which plays Debussy's fable as an enigmatic parlour- game among the fin-de-siecle bourgeosie.

The curtain rises not on forests, castles and a wandering knight, but on a massive art-nouveau interior that Victor Horta might have built in Brussels. It's impressive, opulent, and very likely Vick's response to all the criticism of his minimalist shows in recent years. "You wanted spectacle," this set declares. "Well, here it is, and more."

But what makes the design so fabulous, apart from the vast spiral staircase that dominates it and must have cost several fortunes to build, is a clear- glass floor that the designer Paul Brown has underlaid with carpets of flowers. As the lights change, it becomes a melting boundary between the world of bankers (or whoever owns this grand house) and the world of their dreams, anxieties, desires. And as the staging negotiates this inner world, it replaces the traditional theatre-magic of Pelleas with something just as valid and, perhaps, more telling: an intense, choking despair which goes to the very heart of the piece.

Of course, if you ask 10 people what Pelleas is about, you get 10 different answers. Beyond the absolute core narrative of a prince who kills his brother over their love for the same woman, this is symbolist drama, shrouded in unanswered questions. It's only when you sit down to write a synopsis of the piece - as I once did - that you realise how much of the action is assumed from, rather than explicit in, the text. And that gives directors a considerable licence, which Vick readily accepts. But one clear thing is that this is a sterile community in which no one truly connects with anyone else: a family lost in its own dysfunction. As the production turns full circle, with Melisande dying on the dining-table where she was discovered at the start of Act I, Vick implies that it will ever be so. Little Yniold, starved of affection, will grow up to be his father, Golaud. The baby in the cradle will become its mother, Melisande. History will repeat.

The very hopelessness of all this doesn't make for happy opera, and it will curdle the cream in many Glyndebourne picnics. But it is fascinating, full of insight, and directed with a finesse that avoids the obvious almost to the point of perversity. Vick doesn't use the stage as you'd expect. The spiral staircase isn't turned into the well, or the abyss, or even the tower - all these things are conceptualised - and Melisande's bedroom is beneath the stage, so there's no lifting up of Yniold to spy through the window. Instead, there is a scene of dreadful violence in which Golaud smashes his foot through the glass floor and forces the boy's face into the splintered hole. It's so disturbing that a friend of mine in the social services had to be restrained, after he saw it, from taking a professional interest in the matter. I can only assume that Jake Arditti, who sings Yniold, has been adequately counselled.

As for John Tomlinson, who sings Golaud, it's a mighty reading: possibly a touch too Wotan-esque (he walks as though he should be carrying a spear), but awesome in its darkness and brute strength. He dominates the cast - which isn't difficult, because the singing, generally, is not strong. Christiane Oelze's Melisande and Richard Croft's Pelleas have, at best, a certain lithe, slight charm. But as constituent parts in a collective drama, everyone on stage has something to offer - including Gwynne Howell's lascivious Arkel, Jean Rigby's chilly Genevieve, and a cohort of terrifying servants. This is not the sort of household you'd rush to spend a weekend at. Andrew Davis, the conductor, offers something too. And though they don't exactly cherish the jewels of sound that Debussy tends to drop, gently, into the closing bars of each scene, the London Philharmonic does sufficient justice to the score for its half-melodies to linger in the mind.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that the Philharmonia Orchestra were on such good form that they offered a serious challenge to the London Symphony's widely accepted status as Top British Band. This week, the competition stiffened as they both delivered concert-opera nights of bracing stature.

First the LSO, whose three Barbican performances of Verdi's Otello began (by all accounts) equivocally but ended with a reading (the one I caught) so alive and vivid that it ranks among the most exciting work I've heard all year. The tenor Jose Cura left no doubt that it was his show, with a swank and swagger off the Richter scale. But then he does have an amazing platform presence. It's early in his career for him to be tackling so heavy a role as Otello (something most tenors of his type hold back for later), but it was mostly there. What he couldn't do, he faked with vigour; and by Act II, when he'd stopped crooning and had acquired more definition, he was stunning. As was Carlos Alvarez, the Iago, and the Albanian mezzo Enkelejda Shoska who was too big a talent for the small role of Emilia. Next time, something more I hope.

But the real stars of the show were still the LSO, who played magnificently. How they do it when Sir Colin Davis looks so tired and has the disconcerting habit of beating so far in advance of when the beat actually falls, I don't know. But they do, and it can only be a product of the chemistry between conductors and their orchestras.

By contrast, Valery Gergiev danced like a man on hot coals through Berlioz's quasi-opera The Damnation of Faust at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday. And the Philharmonia replied with playing of impeccable alertness: sharply sensitive to every irritating nuance of a score I don't pretend to love, but can admire when it's done well. Here, it was done superbly well, despite some not so lovely singing from Monte Pederson and Richard Leech. The velvet mezzo warmth of Olga Borodina's Marguerite was a joy. And this first instalment of the Philharmonia's new relationship with Gergiev - having lured him away from the RPO - is something that can only promise more of the same as the orchestra stakes its claim to the dazzling Russian voices Gergiev carries in his wake.

Finally, and briefly, the Covent Garden Festival fielded what seemed like an enticing novelty on Wednesday when the Pocket Opera of Nuremberg brought over their reduced Ring-in-a-single-evening. It didn't actually advertise itself as Wagner without the boring bits, but with 14 hours of music pared down to four, it was clearly framed along those lines. Though the cast of eight and orchestra of 11 looked unpromising, I assumed it would at least be proselytising - like the CBTO's memorable two-night Ring-let some years back. It was the opposite: a parody of modern Wagner staging done with earnest German humour that would have meant nothing to anyone who didn't know their Wagner in the first place. It was vaguely funny - but not enough to make me stay beyond the interval and face another two hours of excruciating singing/playing. As for the parody, it was all too easy. Modern Wagner staging sends itself up well enough. It needs no help.

'Pelleas': Glyndebourne (01273 813813) today, Thurs & Sat