After skipping a year, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra returns to Dutch National Opera for its annual stint at the Holland Festival, this time in Claude Debussy’s only finished opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. It was a proposition full of promise – hearing a 24-carat orchestra in this water-and-light composition, conducted by French repertoire specialist Stéphane Denève. There is no reason why that promise should not still be fulfilled, but on opening night the orchestra, despite playing handsomely, sounded mostly inert and inexpressive in the first three acts. Denève could neither maintain impetus nor sculpt the music convincingly. 

Paul Appleby (Pelléas) and Elena Tsallagova (Mélisande)

In the last two acts, however, he demonstrated what had been missing. As the love triangle hurtled to its tragic end, the performance gained both purpose and propulsion. The beautiful stream of sound that had been trickling aimlessly grew into an opalescent, steadfast surge, which is no less than this singular score deserves. In the tragedy of the mysterious, psychologically damaged Mélisande and the two royal half-brothers who love her, the orchestra plays a leading role, not just in creating the ominous surroundings. Being symbolist creations, the characters in Maurice Maeterlinck’s play register facts and feelings, but understand almost nothing about themselves, and the orchestra provides vital clues about them and their relationships. The RCO’s collaboration with Denève is bound to improve, but a caveat in the casting will be trickier to fix.

Vocally, this production has a lot going for it, with most of the singers already having sung their roles elsewhere. It was distressing, however, to see fine tenor Paul Appleby miscast as Pelléas, a role for a high baritone or a tenor with baritonal weight. Appleby is a laudable singing actor and a good physical fit for the young, sensitive Pelléas, but this role did not bring out the best in his voice, which was full and bright high up, but kept receding at its lowest register. Though vocally at a disadvantage, Appleby still gave a passionate performance and ignited the necessary sparks in the love duet with Elena Tsallagova, who was the Mélisande of one’s dreams. Not only did she look like a Pre-Raphaelite damsel right out of a painting by Edward Burne-Jones, with whom Maeterlinck was obsessed, but she sang as if Debussy wrote the role especially for her. So natural was her phrasing that it was easy to forget that she was singing, not just acting, despite her clear, liquid soprano. And she broke your heart whenever Mélisande made one of her forlorn statements of unhappiness, such as “Je suis malade ici”.

Gregor Hoffmann (Yniold) and Brian Mulligan (Golaud)

Just as extraordinary was the bronze-timbred, complex Golaud of Brian Mulligan, good-intentioned and abusive, eliciting both revulsion and pity. His exchanges with Tsallagova vibrated with tension, building up to his violent eruptions. In fact, Mulligan was dramatically riveting throughout, from when Golaud first finds Mélisande in the forest to his desperate attempts at justifying his murder of Pelléas at her deathbed. And, together with an astonishing Gregor Hoffmann as Yniold, he turned the scene in which Golaud bullies his son into spying on his wife into an unnerving highlight. Hoffmann, a boy soprano in the Tölzer Knabenchor, looked very young, sang well, and showed great acting acumen. Another great asset in the cast was bass Peter Rose as King Arkel. His singing was as steady as a rock and his half-blind monarch exuded great dignity and profound loneliness. Katia Ledoux displayed an attractive mezzo-soprano as the brothers’ mother Geneviève and Michael Wilmering and Fredrik Bergman were able in the comprimario roles.

Pelléas et Mélisande, Dutch National Opera

Anyone familiar with director Olivier Py’s work knows that he is allergic to colour. If you don’t mind Pierre-André Weitz’s monochrome visuals, you’ll probably find that Py’s semi-stylised staging suits this work very well. Symbolism is probably the most misleadingly named movement in the history of art, since there is no direct correspondence between symbols and their meaning. The audience themselves are expected to interpret words and events, and this production is abstract enough not to interfere with that process. Golaud discovers Mélisande in a forest of gleaming, dangling rods. The interiors and exterior of the castle at Allemonde are composed and recomposed by supers in suits wheeling in large skeletal prisms. The geometrically intricate set, full of dark corners, has a severe beauty. Being chiefly metallic, it sometime clangs and chimes when it shouldn’t, but its labyrinth of ladders and staircases, through which the characters are forever climbing, is a strong metaphor for their ignorance regarding their own destiny. Spare but unambiguous imagery points to the inexorable calamity. In the tower scene, Mélisande combs her golden hair with a knife. And before Golaud actually kills his brother, a Pélleas double perishes on the roof, while Yniold, at play, viciously stabs a rag doll. It’s an insightful, beautifully acted account of this spellbinding masterpiece.