Pelléas et Mélisande

Michael managed to get off work a little early yesterday so that we could go to see Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera by Claude Debussy, adapted from a play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Cambridge University Opera Society put on the production at  West Road Concert Hall, so we started the night with a nice stroll to get there. The score by Debussy was beautiful, and beautifully played too. It’s not a heavy score, and is minimal in places. Haunting music in parts.

The production was dark and minimalist: the cast were largely static, and hardly moved. When they did move across it the stage it was sluggishly and indeed all movements were slow and ethereal (with a few exceptions—like the stabbing!). This combined with the minimal set, dappled blue light and faded dusty costumes was strongly atmospheric. The photo below (from TAB) gives a good impression of the atmosphere, postures and facial expressions. While this was stylish and interesting, it was hard to warm to. I was pretty tired and I did fall asleep twice during the first couple of acts…

Fiona Mackay was great as Genevieve, and it was a pity she wasn’t on stage more—she has a marvellous voice. Christopher Law and Louise Kemey were also great, and we thought that Louise Kemey should have come in as the lead for the ovation, as she stood out and had to do a lot of work, being in every scene. The second half was more dynamic than the first, with the great meeting of the leads outside the fort walls, and the stabbing of Pelléas.

I really enjoyed this production—it was a great example of how the vision and production can make for a singular experience. I can easily imagine this opera performed as a very rich, and encompassing style.


From the Pelléas et Mélisande web site: (and also reviewed by TAB)

‘All destiny appears to our eyes as if reversed’ (Maeterlinck)c8b17eb1-e3ae-4da2-849c-94f87d13996a.jpg

Pelléas et Mélisande is a gem of Symbolist opera, what Olivier Messiaen called ‘one of the great, quite exceptional masterpieces of opera’ (1979).

Maeterlinck’s characters are guided through fate’s path as marionettes. Death hangs constantly over the characters with absolute inevitability. Death as it occurs is purely symbolic, as none of the characters were ever alive, in accordance with Maeterlinck’s belief that ‘poems die when living people get into them’. The souls which wander the stage in Pelléas et Mélisande are merely symbols of humanity. All we see is a single moment, a visible flash of an infinite cycle of life. The characters reveal infinite truths which will recur along with the continuation of mankind – lies, murder for jealousy, possession within love, innocence, and corruption.

Ultimately, there is fundamental truth ‘la verite’, for which Golaud pleads Melisande on her deathbed; ‘Tell me no more lies at the moment of death’. But the truth will never be revealed. At her death, Mélisande whispers the words ‘the truth? The truth?’ and Golaud cries out in agony: ‘Now I shall never know. I shall die without knowing, in my blindness.’


Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande was first performed in Paris in 1893. The play was seen by Debussy, who sought permission from Maeterlinck to write the opera, which was granted. Although completed in 1895, the work was not performed until 1902, when it was staged in the Opéra-Comique theatre in Paris.

The scenes take place during the Middle Ages in the fictional kingdom of Allemonde. Prince Golaud, grandson of Arkel the King of Allemonde, finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her back to the castle of King Arkel. Here Mélisande meets Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas and they become friends. Golaud surprises Pelléas caressing Mélisande’s long hair, but initially dismisses the incident as child-like play. Later, Golaud attempts to discover the truth about Pelléas and Mélisande’s relationship by forcing his son, Yniold, to spy on the couple. Pelléas decides to leave the castle but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time and the two finally confess their love for one another. Golaud, who has been eavesdropping, rushes out and kills Pelléas. Mélisande dies shortly after, having given birth to a daughter, with Golaud still begging her to tell him “the truth”.

  • Golaud : Christopher Dollins
  • Pelléas: Gwilym Bowen
  • Mélisande: Louise Kemeny
  • Arkel: Christopher Law
  • Genevieve: Fiona Mackay
  • Yniold: Josephine Stephenson
  • Un Médecin: Dominic Sedgwick

Orfeo at the ADC

Arrived back from skiing in Chamonix this afternoon, then hot footed it to see the last night of Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi at the ADC Theatre. The production was by the Cambridge University Baroque Ensemble & Fitzwilliam Chamber Opera, who have set up this nice web site. The lead playing Orpheus, Sam Furness, and the messenger, Suzana Ograjense, booth stood out with excellent performances. Adam Drew made a good Charon, his bass added a lot of atmosphere as did the makeup! The Ensemble as good, and really impressive when they sang together.

The music was wonderful: Dan Tidhar was great on the harpsichord and this pulled the whole piece together. We knew Stephen Mounsey and Anna Langley, playing cornet and lute, but we hadn’t anticipated they would have made such a grand appearance—Anna on stage for the opening scene, and Stephen in the middle isle as part of a grand wind instrument fanfare, from a few rows behind us.

I did need a prod half way through the second half: we’d had most of a bottle of shiraz by then and the heat, dark, and wine combined with our early start had me dozing nicely! The appearance of a grand golden Apollo descending from heaven in his chariot amidst a mass of gold and orange sunbeams made quite an impression and blew the cobwebs away (Michael poking me in the sides helped too!).

The most impressive staging I thought was the transition from the Styx, to the Palace of Hades. A gauze curtain provided a lit backdrop for Charon that was used to good effect, and the stage behind was lit to show the ensemble, dressed in grey and white gauze shrouds, drifting around on the stage, with Hades and Persephone behind on their thrones. Slick and ‘underwordly’. The ensemble sang behind the gauze screen which added to the atmosphere.

We really enjoyed the performance.

From the ADC web site:

“Baying creatures of the underworld, the descent Apollo from on high and woven through all, the power of music so beauteous it charms even the gods”s09orfeo.gif

Join Orpheus on his perilous journey to Pluto’s realm where he, ravaged by grief, seeks to rescue his beloved wife, Euridice. Accompanied only by Hope and his magical lyre, Orpheus sets out upon a timeless tale of Love so strong it vies to overcome even Death. But will Pluto heed his pleas? Will Orpheus’ own weakness prove his very undoing?

As vibrant today as it was in 1607, the world’s first true opera bursts into life on the ADC stage in a brand new English translation. Brought to you by Cambridge’s finest young singers and a large, dazzling period-instrument orchestra, Monteverdi’s music alternately delights and twists at the heart, by turns ethereal and virtuosic.

Don’t miss this rare opportunity to witness Orfeo at it’s best – fully staged and spectacular.