Pélleas et Mélisande

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, 11 May 2007 3.5 stars

Pélleas et Mélisande

It's fourteen years since Pélleas et Mélisande was last performed at Covent Garden, so this new production - first seen at last year's Salzburg festival - was all the more highly anticipated. And with a cast including three of today's great opera singers, plus Sir Simon Rattle in the pit, it ought to have been an evening to remember. But in the event, the production seriously undermined a near-ideal performance of the musical text.

Opera was at a crossroads when Debussy started to write Pélleas et Mélisande. The composer had to create a new aesthetic in the post-Wagnerian period, one which both resolved the crisis of traditional French grand opera, with its closed aria, duet and finale forms, and overcame the dominance of Wagner's music-drama. His solution was highly sophisticated and involved, in particular, a return to the declamatory singing style of Monteverdi while infusing it with modern octatonic and whole tone harmonies and sounds from non-Western music (particularly the gamelan). Although he retained the use of the Leitmotif from Wagner, Debussy played down the influence of his visit to Bayreuth on Pélleas, and rightly so. He placed less emphasis on cadences, used sparing orchestral forces where Wagner would have used large ones, and, most especially, employed structural silences as a means of punctuation. For me, the most Wagnerian aspect of the piece is dramatic rather than musical: when Golaud enters to disturb the passionate embraces of Pélleas and Mélisande in Act IV, Scene IV (pictured above), the action resembles the advent of King Mark during Tristan and Isolde's love duet, the other famous operatic depiction of coitus interruptus.

Perhaps Debussy's masterstroke was to write an opera based on a play which was both modern (it was written during the same year that he started composition on the opera) and historical (it has an unspecific medieval setting, leaving the music open to free expression). Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pélleas et Mélisande caused a furore when it was unveiled in 1893, partly because of the long structural silences between each of its thirteen scenes; they inspired Debussy's use of silence in his composition but confused audiences. The appeal of the play for Debussy was its Symbolist style, where visual symbols signify unseen emotions. Paradoxically, Maeterlinck thought that plays should represent the unrepresentable; Debussy wanted to bring this ideal to opera by expressing in music elements that which could not be expressed in words. In the case of Pélleas, this meant expressing the pull of Destiny and Fate on the course of the drama.

On the level of revealing the opera's symbolism, Stanislas Nordey's new production of Pélleas et Mélisande for the Royal Opera succeeds in what it sets out to do. During the first three acts, huge boxes resembling books open outwards to reveal interiors dominated by a single icon repeated all over the walls that embodies the main idea for that scene. For instance, letters cover the walls for a scene where a letter has motivated the drama, or blood-stained pillows adorn them when this is the key image in the text. It is a relatively effective visual actualisation of the Verdian technique of parola scenica, where nineteenth-century opera composers would emphasise a single word or phrase in the vocal line to sum up an entire aria or scene.

But otherwise, the production is a disaster and a travesty. Most of the time it felt like the performance was going on at the front of the stage in spite of the bizarre sets towards the back. It seems remarkable that in an opera whose score is so full of colour, designer Emmanuel Clolus has managed to provide such dull settings, most of which are dominated by white or occasionally red. Whilst it would be ridiculous to demand that a literal staging of the opera would be appropriate, especially given the composer's desire for the music to play such an active role in dramatic expression, the libretto is frequently so specific about the characters' experiences that the singers needed physical manifestations of buildings and aspects of nature in order to relate the story with any conviction; instead, they were left to act and sing at the front of the stage with nothing to react to, a bit like a concert performance.

Raoul Fernandez's costumes continue the idea of the 'story book' settings, so that nearly all the singers are allotted oversized white body-length costumes ending with massive pantaloons; this homogenises all the characters and is bizarre in the case of Geneviève, Golaud and Pélleas' mother (who should obviously not be dressed as a man). The exception is Mélisande, who wears a red dress all the way through, to symbolise that she is an outsider to the rest of the family. The effect of everyone wearing the same costume is ridiculous on the whole, and to cap it all, the final scene is spoiled by the presence of twenty of the white costumes dotted about the stage like mannequins and the arrival of twenty stagehands to drag them off, just as Mélisande has died to the most poignant music imaginable.

The serious disappointment of the production is considerably lessened by a nearly exemplary musical performance. The Royal Opera could not have fielded a more perfect cast for these performances. Angelika Kirchschlager is a delicate but passionate Mélisande; Gerald Finley an outstanding Golaud, portraying the character's bewilderment at the unfolding events; and Simon Keenlyside both heroic and lyrical as Pélleas, his impeccable French reminding us too of his exceptional linguistic skills. Arkel is the perfect role for Robert Lloyd at this stage of his career: Debussy wanted the character to represent autumnal tenderness and Lloyd delivered this with his customary intelligence. Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Geneviève) overcame her demeaning costume thanks to her strong projection and careful declamation of the text; it was good to have Jette Parker Young Artist Robert Gleadow back on the stage after an absence of some months, as the shepherd and doctor; and boy chorister George Longworth almost stole the show as Golaud's son Yniold.

Occasionally, more pace from Simon Rattle in the pit might have helped to overcome the impossible tediousness of the production, but otherwise this was the most sensitively and imaginatively conducted production of the current Covent Garden season. To bring such beauty out of the orchestra whilst allowing the singers to be heard easily is no mean feat, and Rattle's careful attention both to Debussy's word-setting and the more existential elements of the score was a wonder to behold.

BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the opera on 9 June at 6.30pm. It's probably the most effective way of getting the best out of this run of performances.

By Dominic McHugh