Pelléas et Mélisande or The desperate sadness of the unconscious
Graham Vick’s production of Pelléas et Mélisande, originally conceived for the Glyndebourne Summer Festival but already brought to Oxford and other cities in Southern England by Glyndebourne on Tour a few years ago, sets the action in the early twentieth century, at the time of the opera’s composition. This is by now a well-known, indeed almost clichéd directorial ploy, of course. In the case of Pelléas, however, it remains highly significant, since this work’s dramatic aesthetics relies so crucially on the absence of a precise setting, both chronologically and geographically. Where is Allemonde? When does the action take place? That we cannot answer these questions precisely is fundamental to making Pelléas what it is. It should follow, then, that Vick’s production goes against the grain of the work’s dramaturgy and aesthetics, since it answers these questions with a certain degree of precision: this Pelléas takes place in a richly decorated and lavishly furnished drawing-cum-dining room in an aristocratic or haute-bourgeoisie residence in Western Europe (France perhaps?) ca. 1900 (costumes are a powerful tool of chronological individuation in fashion-conscious modern Europe).
Yet, a gesture 'against' is emphatically what this production is not. The external action of Vick’s Pelléas may take place in a lavishly furnished turn-of-the-century room, but its internal, psychological and emotional one -arguably the opera’s true action- takes place in the innermost recesses of the characters’ souls. Or, to put it in the terms that were starting to circulate around Europe precisely ca. 1900, in their unconscious. It is precisely the connection between the opera and Freudian psychoanalysis that Paul Brown’s sets and costumes bring to the fore, a connection that has long been suggested, and that this production supports with fully persuasive conviction. Perhaps it all happens in Golaud’s mind, then -a Golaud reminiscent of a middle-aged Freud, especially at the very beginning, sitting in a green leather armchair near a lamp on an almost completely dark stage- and the other characters are his fantasies, or dreams. In any case, this directorial choice, as well as the restrained yet powerfully intense acting that accompanies it, open the way for some disturbing interpretive possibilities. When 'Golaud' and 'Pelléas' describe the stench and darkness of the grotto in Act 3, could they be referring to a very faint yet unmistakable whiff of incestuous homoeroticism in their relationship? The fact that we are not in a grotto, but in a drawing room, with 'Golaud' and 'Pelléas' sitting very close to each other on an imposing leather sofa, and with 'Pelléas' snuggling up to 'Golaud' and holding on to his brother’s arm as if for dear life, makes such an interpretation possible. Here perhaps lies the strength of Vick’s conception: interpretive possibilities are suggested, room is made for them, but they are never imposed, shouted out loud. The result is an evening of gripping, at times violent, and in the end devastatingly sad -and therefore, I am tempted to say, utterly satisfying- musical theatre.
Of course all this would not have been possible if the musical aspects of the performance had not been equally convincing. The singers clearly gave all they had, and this all was really quite a lot. Indeed, in the case of Andrew Slater’s 'Golaud', a little too much at times: if he lets anger distort his voice already in Act 2, inevitably the impact of his very angry and quite distorted voice in the Act-4 confrontation scene between him and 'Mélisande' will be at least slightly diminished -the scene turned out almost unbearable to watch and hear nonetheless, thanks in great part to Slater’s forceful acting and vocal intensity. Tove Dahlberg’s perfectly manoeuvred and slightly cold voice suited 'Mélisande' completely, the hint of coldness enhancing rather than diminishing the intense eroticism of the “tower” scene -here a chandelier. Kevin Greenlaw’s 'Pelléas' was perhaps the most accomplished portrayal of the evening: the voice is perfect for the role, effortless in the high tessitura and warm in all registers; what is more, he is young and good-looking, and moved with the slightly aimless enthusiasm of an overgrown teenager- a perfect choice for 'Pelléas' (remember Golaud’s words to him and 'Mélisande': “You two are such children!”).
Geoffrey Moses’ 'Arkel' and Anne-Marie Owens’ 'Geneviève' were most convincing as aristocrats paralyzed by their social roles, repression very much the key to their personalities -except when 'Arkel' kisses 'Mélisande' on the mouth, another of those almost unbearable moments of which this production is so generous. The treble David Stark as 'Yniold' was always in tune -no mean feat for a treble- and carried through with utter conviction the nasty scene in which 'Golaud' forces him to spy on 'Pelléas' and 'Mélisande' from a window.
The highest praise should perhaps go to the orchestra, and especially to the conductor Pascal Rophé, for a poetically colourful reading of the score that did not shy away from pulling all the stops in the climaxes, but communicated with equal force in the many whispered moments -often terrified, anguished whisper- of which 'Pelléas' is so rewardingly rich. I left the theatre feeling profoundly sad, and utterly satisfied.