When Stephen McNeff was commissioned to reorchestrate Pelléas et Mélisande for Independent Opera's 35 players in the tiny Lillian Baylis Studio, he worried that it would be like "scrawling graffiti on the Eiffel Tower".
Instead, by using horns and bassoons in place of trombones, returning to the interludes that were deemed too short for the set-changes in the 1902 premiere and deftly reallocating the divisi strings, he has exposed the human frame of Debussy's dreamlike masterpiece. The engorged shadow of Tristan is diminished, quivering echoes of the G-minor String Quartet dance at the edge of one's consciousness, song becomes speech, and the swooning layers of symbolism are unpeeled to reveal an intimate expression of frustrated misery. The reduction is without doubt an extraordinary success, but I can understand McNeff's misgivings. Even as a listener, it feels transgressive being this close to this score.
The sense of transgression is intensified in Alessandro Talevi's highly physical production. Conductor Dominic Wheeler and the orchestra play from under and behind the three darkened walkways of Madeleine Boyd's clever set, as four red-stockinged grisettes operate pulleys and electroliers, their pinched white faces striped with rouge, sooty bonnets clamped to their crimped curls. This is a Paris Debussy would have recognised from his flirtations with bohemian life: the Paris of Lautrec, Hocquet, Gaby Dupont and, Talevi implies, Mélisande (Ingrid Perruche). Wounded and bedraggled when first seen in the forest, she could be any prostitute roughed up or raped by her pimp in the Bois de Boulogne. It's a credible past for this pastless figure, and Perruche's simple, direct, natural delivery, blank-canvas face and violet eyes suggest innocent and vamp, child and older woman, Desdemona, Violetta and Lulu. Yes, she lies. But Talevi underlines the complicity of every other character in choosing to hear what they want to hear.
If Perruche is a magnetic presence, sometimes looking 15, at other times close to 50, Andrew Foster-Williams's Golaud is the centre of this production. Awkward, conventional, stiff with unexpressed emotion, hideously disappointed, shoe-horned into suspicion and grotesquely realistic domestic violence, he is as much, if not more, the victim. It's beautiful singing – impassioned, truthful – and though his is too small a voice for the full orchestral version, I found Foster-Williams the most moving Golaud I have heard. In Talevi's reading, Thorbjörn Gulbrandsoy's Pelléas is effete and inauthentic: a self-indulgent, infantilised melancolic playing at the role of romantic. But he too sings persuasively, as do Julie Pasturaud (Geneviève), Caryl Hughes (Yniold), Vojtech Safarik (Médécin), and the imposing Frédéric Bourreau (Arkel), while the instrumental playing, especially that of oboist Jennie-Lee Keetley, leader Alex Afia and clarinettist Andrew Mason, is outstanding. Though some of the production details don't work – the homoerotic subtext between Pelléas and Golaud, the bureau drawers concealed in Geneviève's bustle, the skein of hair spun, Gretchen-style, by Mélisande – I would guess that all involved will enjoy significant operatic careers. Sadly, Pelléas is Independent Opera's last production, though McNeff's score and the 20 young artist scholarships will live on.
Richard Strauss's rather flippant criticism of Pelléas, that "one might as well be listening to Maeterlinck's play as it was, without the music", could apply to The Cumnor Affair. Commissioned by Tête-à-Tête, Philip Cashian's tidy score is so subdued as to operate as a sound-track; supporting Iain Pears's one-act libretto rather than propelling it, save for a single instance of clumsy word-setting where the final syllable of "misery" is the longest and highest. (A surprisingly common mistake in modern British opera.) The death of Amy Robsart (Amy Carson), wife of Elizabeth I's favourite, Robert Dudley (Andrew Rees) certainly has dramatic potential, but without any suggestion of the musical language of the period in the score it doesn't convince as an opera. Director Bill Bankes-Jones and designer Tim Meacock conveyed the claustrophobia of Elizabeth's court and Cumnor Place using little more than a few screens and some clever lighting, as Amy's brief candle was snuffed out before the watchful eyes of her queen and rival.Reuse content