Arts Review: Pelléas & Mélisande

Dir. Sir David McVicar, Theatre Royal, 23rd Feb – 4th March

While this opera is at its heart a simple love triangle involving siblings, Pelléas & Mélisande is shrouded in so much mystery and intrigue that what might happen next is anyone’s guess. The story itself is straightforward – a Prince finds a young girl and proceeds to marry her and bring her home where her affections for the Prince’s brother quickly begin to cause issue. This, however, becomes somewhat confusing as the story is told, with vague and seemingly unnecessary symbolism obscuring the plot.

Who is this mysterious girl who appeared alone in the forest, crying? What becomes of Pelléas’ ailing father and friend who must be urgently seen to? These and other such questions are never answered. In one scene in the penultimate act, the Prince’s son sings of losing a golden ball and seeing a shepherd, though nothing comes of this. Debussy’s cutting down of Maeterlinck’s original play explains some of the confusion, but one feels like it must be intentionally baffling.

The piece itself is very clearly Debussy, the enigmatic tone heightened by Debussy’s general approach to tonality and harmony. Fans of the Frenchman will find this work strangely familiar, with snippets lifted straight from Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, such as the dreamlike chromatic wind sequences and use of drones. Yet the opera feels nonetheless unique, more Wagnerian than Italian in style, but with Renaissance choral and Southeast Asian influences. Perhaps most interestingly is how Debussy sets the libretto, the French sung in a very natural conversational manner, making it somehow very accessible despite the deeply strange content of the opera.

[Jimmy Donaghy – @JimmyDonagee]

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