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.
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