|Christina Gansch, Christopher Purves, John Chest : Photo Richard Hubert Smith|
At Glyndebourne for Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera that operates on many levels at once. Symbolism, for goodness sake, not literalism ! Towers, tunnels, pools, movements upwards and downwards. Sex, obviously, but also violence and disorder rumbling not far below the surface. Blinding heat and impenetrable darkness, extremes that mirror and contrast. In a dense forest (itself a symbol) Golaud is out hunting (killing animals). Why is a man of his position alone in the middle of nowhere ? And who is Mélisande, and what's she doing? Debussy's music is ambiguous yet beguiling, tonally elusive, leading us ever deeper, til we're almost as hypnotised as the characters acting out the mystery. Nothing in this opera is straightforward, so it's ideally suited to a director like Stefan Herheim, whose forte is multi-levelled detail. This Pelléas et Mélisande deserves careful attention, since it's psychologically perceptive and, like so much of Herheim's work, explores concepts of art, repression and creativity. It's as good as anything that might be seen in a bigger house and ought to be on DVD for repeat listening.
Usually all we see of the Organ Room at Glyndebourne is the window, which appears right stage. Now we see it from a different perspective, modelling the logic of the narrative. But it's a mistake to assume that this production is "about" Glyndebourne and the Christie family. Like so much in the opera, appearances are deceptive, designed to divert the unwary. So, for starters, get past the obvious symbolism. The family business is theatre: they know that art is not reality TV. Getting too caught up in the Glyndebourne allusion is a mistake. Herheim likes the 19th century from whence came Romanticism. Remember his Parsifal for Bayreuth ? Just as Pelléas et Mélisande is not a shallow opera, Herheim's production is anything but superficial. In the first scene, deep chords emerge from the orchestra, as resonant as an organ. The huge upright pipes dominate the stage, but are they a symbol for Golaud (Christopher Purves), the big man in Allemonde, who thinks mainly in terms of his own organ and needs. Again and again, Mélisande (Christina Gansch) says "Ne me touchez pas!" but he's not a guy who connects to anyone but himself, like so many one-dimensional bullies. From purely practical considerations, the organ serves a structural foundation, as did Hans Sachs’s desk in Herheim's Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg. (Please read what I wrote about that HERE)
Assume that Mélisande is meek and mild, and you're on the wrong track. She's the supposedly passive vector whose presence unleashes havoc all around her. Like a Lorelei, she's an elemental spirit, perhaps as old as Time. Herheim combines beginning and end : Mélisande's "body" is seen on her deathbed, while she sings. Past, present and future converge. The baby is cradled by others, implying that the cycle will be reborn. "C'est au tour de la pauvre petite.", as wise old Arkel (Brindley Sherratt) will sing at the end. So it's no problem seeing the dead Pelléas moving or the dying Mélisande singing as she once was, in the forest. That "is" the story.
It's also a mistake to assume that Pelléas et Mélisande means just Pelléas and Mélisande. Golaud and Pelléas (John Chest) are brothers with the same roots, but are mirror opposites, interacting with Mélisande in their different ways : not inseparable. Herheim's focus on Golaud is important because it connects to the deeper psychological levels in the opera. Though warned, Golaud brings Mélisande to Allemonde where she awakens in Pelléas feelings that are at once child-like and dangerous. It's no accident that Pelléas and Mélisande see three blind men by the grotto. His first comment is telling. "Oh! voici la clarté! ". Then "ce sont trois vieux pauvres qui se sont endormis... .. Pourquoi sont-ils venus dormir ici?" There has been a famine in the countrysiude, but perhaps there's been an emotional famine in the palace, from which Pelléas might now be waking. The images of drought and clear water, oppressive sunshine and darkness, noon, and damp, underground caves in the libretto and in the music are there for a reason. Herheim suggests this by showing the blind men as empty easels, on which Pelléas seems to be painting invisble pictures, mirroring the portraits of the past on the castle walls. Is Pelléas a prototype artist, who can see what philistines like Golaud cannot see ?
Golaud puts Pelléas's eyes out so he "becomes" a blind man. Destruction is Golaud's way of expressingn what he cannot articulate. Listen to the brutal menace in the music. We see Golaud sodomise Yniold. That's what bullies do. They think in power, humiliation and self-gratification. The organ, again.... Herheim uses a soprano (Chloé Briot) in the role, partly because sopranos are easier to cast than trebles, but also because this connects to violence against women in macho society. This is also in the score. In this production the women who come to Mélisande on her death bed look like Victorian maids, but they may well represent ancient female rituals attending birth and death. When Yniold's hat falls off, revealing her long hair (like Mélisande's), we recognise her as part of that alternative culture. That's why Golaud cries out on the appearance of the women "Qu'y-a-t'il? Qu'est-ce que toutes ces femmes viennent faire ici!". He ought to be able to recognize regular castle staff, but these he cannot comprehend. Casting an adult women also moderates the horror an audience might feel imagining a real child getting raped. But it isn't just women who are Golaud's targets. Significantly, he leads Pelléas into the caves beneath the castle, damp and dark, like vaginas. When Yniold goes looking for his ball he spots Pélléas lying blind - silenced - on stage, his bottom raised upwards, facing the audience and lit by a spotlight. "Oh! cette pierre est lourde..." sings Yniold. Yniold can't find his ball, and even the sheep are still. "Berger!" he cries "Pourquoi ne parlent-ils plus:?"
And who is Arkel? Is he a benign figure of authority, or is he implicit in the slow devitalization of Allemonde and its ruling house ?The desiccation didn't happen overnight. The ancestor portraits on the castle walls look down, impassively, a bit like Arkel himself. After all, Arkel is quick to comfort Golaud. Mélisande doesn't judge him either, but she may well know that she's the Lorelei he tried to possess. And Geneviève (Karen Cargill), the Doctor (Michael Mofidian), Shepherd (Michael Wallace), and the factotums in the castle ? Extremely good ensemble work, the groups of actors operating in unison, not as individuals. Bullies win when in systems where no-one stands up to them. Christopher Purves and Brindley Sherratt provided the ballast in this cast, two very strong personalities, mirroring and contrasting with each other. Glyndebourne singers and choruses are much better than most country house and seasonal productions but the economics doesn't run to some of the international megastars who often sing Pelléas and Mélisande. Robin Ticciati conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Nichilas Jenkins directed the Glyndebourne chorus. If the orchestral playing was more raucuous than refined (apart from the key flute, harp and woodwind parts which symbolize Mélisande) that didn't detract too much. Herheim and his dramaturge Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach created an unusually perceptive Pelléas et Mélisande which really needs to be seen again so its insights and details might better be appreciated.
And as for the ending ? Actors dressed as a Glyndebourne audience wander into the room, like tourists gaping, oblivious of the psychic drama that has taken place, Utterly obtuse, like critics who can't see beyond their own egos. The whole point of this opera is the questions it raises. Symbols exist as clues to meaning, but meaning will always elude those who don't think. In general Glyndebourne audiences are sharp - I overheard a group baying blood against Brexit - but the London media are a pack of Golauds.
Pelléas et Mélisande deals with uncanny events and layers of reality and non-reality. Srrangely enough, that's exactly what happened to me and my partner when we attended. We arrived early and could hear Brindley Sherratt practising his scales from somewhere high above. Wow, did his voice carry ! He's been unwell, but being a pro, he soldiers on. Basses who can act with their voices go on til they reach old age. Sherratt certainly has character, and Arkel benefits from Sherratt's personality. Each year, I count the sheep on the hills above Glyndebourne. This year's heatwave has turned the fields white, revealing the chalk beneath the surface. No grass, no sheep grazing. Just like the heat which paralyzes Allemonde. "Where are the sheep?" my partner said. Quick as a shot "Maintenant ils se taisent tous..." Driving back after the show on the B2192 to Lewes, our car was hit by a deer who jumped suddenly into the road. We had no time to brake or react, and couldn't stop because there was so much traffic, going too fast on the bends. The deer might have ben hurt but it darted off. Our car had a bump : not a minor impact. But why did the deer jump, heading towards the wall on the other side of the road with a steep cliff below ? Who knows why, anymore than Mélisande materializing suddenly in the forest. Perhaps Golaud is right "Ce n'est pas ma faute". What is "la verité, la verité" ?