Thursday, 22 August 2013

Pelleas et Melisande at the Grimeborn Festival

Ilona Domnich as Melisande and Simon Wallfisch as Pelleas (Picture: Alastair Muir)
For this year's Grimeborn Festival, the Arcola Theatre has collaborated with Bury Court Theatre on a production of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande. One of the great icons of the opera stage, Debussy's only completed opera is a stretch for any company, particularly one performing in a small scale studio theatre with just a piano as accompaniment leaving nowhere for the singers to hide indeed. Luckily Grimeborn was blessed with a very strong cast consisting of Simon Wallfisch, Ilona Domnich, Alan Ewing, Oliver Hunt, Carris Jones, Lucy Roberts and Justin Brindley with Philip Voldman at the piano. The production was directed by the Swiss-Turkish director Aylin Bozok and lighting was by Joshua Pharo.

Costumes were loosely 19th century and Ilona Domnich's Melisande had luxuriant long blond hair. The set, such as it was, was abstract with much use of Pharo's evocative lighting. The effect of performing with the audience on three sides of the playing area, in a studio theatre, was to bring the singing into strong relief. This was intensified by the fact that by using the piano accompaniment we lost much of the effect of the orchestra.


The orchestral interludes lost much of their allusive effect, with the work becoming less chiaroscuro and more black and white, more present. I have heard the work performed in a reduced orchestration, but with just a piano I felt that lack on an instrumental ensemble to be a grievous loss to Debussy's music.

Bozok's production, though on the surface quite naturalistic, had a high degree of artifice about it. In the opening scene, when Melisande (Ilona Domnich) and Golaud (Alan Ewing) were straining to look at the glinting gold deep within the pool, there was a crown hanging above them and they strained upwards. Similarly in the tower scene there was a long hanging representing Melisande's hair and Simon Wallfisch interacted with this. This also represented a theatrical device that Bozok seems to have been fond of, two characters who are interacting but whom Bozok separates across the stage. The 'hair' hanging remained on stage for the next two acts, becoming the window trough which Yniold (Lucy Roberts) looked and the means by which Ewing's Golaud strangled Wallfisch's Pelleas. Throughout I was very aware of Bozok adding a layer of symbolism to the production.

But the biggest surprise came in the final act. Oliver Hunt's Arkel, looking younger and more rejuvenated than in the earlier acts, had left his wheel char which was now occupied by Domnich whose wrists were strapped down. The final scene was played in a somewhat ritualistic manner and the closing tableau was Melisande's corpse being taken to hang with that of Yniold and countless others. I am not quite sure what Bozok was trying to say, except to present Arkel as some sort of Bluebeard. But the result was to graft and unwelcome element of Gothic horror onto the work

Luckily the strong cast gave a performance which blew away any such doubts. Wallfisch and Domnich provided some stunningly beautiful singing and finely modulated phrases, responding to Debussy's subtle music.

There was a degree of artifice to Domnich's Melisande, you did not feel that she was a naif and this was reflected in the slightly self-conscious feel of the way she shaped the music. Her coolness was an advantage and I feel that this promising performance deserves wider exposure. Everyone in the opera talks about Melisande's attraction and her eyes, and Domnich incarnated this superbly. She was mesmerising to listen to and to watch. It was an extraordinary performance.

She was finely partnered by the lyric baritone Simon Wallfisch as an ardent Pelleas. All wide-eyed innocence and beautiful tone, Wallfisch's Pelleas was one of the most beautifully sung accounts of the role that I have come across. Wallfisch sang with a nice even, flexible tone throughout the range and only a couple notes at the very top seemed to challenge him. There are depths to Pelleas that Wallfisch has not yet reached, but his performance will deepen I am sure.

Where I felt a lack was in the relationship between Pelleas and Melisande. Wallfisch and Domnich's final scene was passionately ardent, but in all the earlier scenes their interaction was a little cool and did not crackle with suppressed emotion. For this, I think, we must hold Bozok's production responsible, with its high degree of artifice.

Alan Ewing's Golaud was a large scale, vibrant performance. He thrillingly filled the space with powerful emotion and perpetually seemed on the point of boiling over. It was an immensely mesmerising and striking performance. I have seen Golaud performed in a more self-contained manner, but rarely this thrillingly all encompassing.

Oliver Hunt gave a finely sung account of Arkel but he was curiously distant. Confined to a wheelchair for the first four acts, this was a performance which I think was constrained by Bozok's concept. Carris Jones did what she could with the small part of Genevieve, showing a nice feel for Debussy's musical line. Lucy Roberts made a charming Yniold, constantly blowing soap bubbles, and Justin Brindley was the doctor

Philip Voldman did wonders on the piano but he did not quite convince me that we could do without the orchestra. The work was played with intervals after acts two and four, which was one interval too many I think. Returning to the theatre for the final act seemed to much of a distraction, and in fact many people did not make it back. The work was sung in French with surtitles projected on the wall, though all the cast were highly communicative in their French.

This was an impressive and intriguing production. Bozok and her cast made the best of the change of emphasis that this studio performance brought out, with extremely fine singing combined with some performances which only deserve to develop.

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