Review: Pelleas et Melisande

JOE CONWAY enjoyed a production of Pelléas et Mélisande that was somewhat marred by clumsy and static direction.

CUOS melisande Music Opera orchestra pelleas

Pelléas et Mélisande, Wednesday 17th-Saturday 20th February, 7.45 at West Road Concert Hall, £9-15

There was a moment of pure theatrical magic at the end of the CUOS performance of Pelléas et Mélisande on Friday night. The orchestra had reached the final sunlit chord, a poignant tubular bell sounded from the pit, and then – silence. No one in the large audience dared break the spell and, for at least a minute, singers, players and listeners froze. Finally some brave soul applauded and broke the enchantment.

For Pelléas et Mélisande is not one of those operas packed with familiar feel-good arias and rousing choruses. There are none of the traditional operatic absurdities of plot, and no screeching tenors and warbling – or do I mean wobbling? – sopranos. And if you thought opera was a bit of a joke then an experience of Pelleas would soon change your mind.

Photos: Soumaya Keynes

Maeterlinck's play and Debussy's music conspire to create a dark, brooding landscape peopled by neurotic lost souls. An eternal triangle, a fallen woman wrongly accused of infidelity, doomed young love which can only lead to death – it's all familiar territory but none the less effective for that. Especially when played out against a background which anticipates the Gormenghast mis-en-scéne. A decaying castle complete with the usual gothic trappings – towers, caves, vaults, pools of stagnant water, you name it.

As I've suggested, for the audience all this adds up to a gruelling evening in the theatre. But for the singers, instrumentalists, stage crew, directors and designers it represents a huge challenge, so that it's vastly to the credit of the Cambridge University Opera Society that it chose such a demanding project and brought it to fruition.

Inevitably much of the action depends on the members of the doomed triangle. As Pelléas Gwilym Bowen was really at home with the speech rhythms of the original French, and his unforced, rounded tenor voice helped make his character believable and sympathetic. Mélisande's part is even more demanding, as she's onstage in almost every scene, and Louise Kemeny worked hard and successfully to convey a character continually tormented and eventually torn in two.

The third member of the triangle is Golaud, Mélisande's husband. Christopher Dollins' baritone was great in intonation and expression but was sometimes not loud enough to be heard over the large orchestra. As the only real focus of action in the plot Golaud needs to convey strength and conviction but he was hampered in this by some clumsy and static direction. Even in the climactic scenes of the opera – the murder of Pelléas and the assault on Mélisande – there was a baffling lack of fluency about the movement and staging.

As King Arkël Christopher Law contributed a fine performance which grew in dignity towards the end of the opera. Josephine Stephenson was also well cast as Golaud's son, and other roles were sung by Fiona Mackay, Dominic Sedgwick and Guy Hayward.

The minimal and generally monochrome set was serviceable but didn't add a lot to the proceedings or make it easy for the singers to further the action. Similarly the paint-stained costumes didn't do anyone any favours…

In the orchestra pit on the other hand all went swimmingly under the buoyant and authoritative direction of Christopher Stark. Debussy's ravishing and consistently beautiful score emerging as a major force in the production, not only by setting up the characters and situations, but also by commenting on them with insight and sympathy. Which, I guess, is what opera is all about.