Fans and detractors of Pelléas et Mélisande will agree on one thing: this is not an easy opera to produce. The obscure and referential nature of the dialogue combines with the impressionistic nature of Debussy’s music in a series of scenes which are more illustrative of their other-worldly characters than narrative. Comparisons with Tristan und Isolde are inevitable in spite of their different aesthetics: both are medieval love triangles very much focused on words and philosophies, both are overseen by wise old kings (although in Pelléas, Arkel is an onlooker rather than a protagonist). Taking on the additional challenge of creating a production which can tour to multiple venues around the country, James Conway and English Touring Opera make a creditable effort but struggle to overcome some of the work’s inherent difficulties.

Stephan Loges (Golaud), Susanna Hurrell (Mélisande) and Michael Druiett (Arkel) © Richard Hubert Smith
Stephan Loges (Golaud), Susanna Hurrell (Mélisande) and Michael Druiett (Arkel)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The pick of the singing performances are in the low voices, from Michael Druiett as Arkel and Stephan Loges as Golaud. Druiett has a warm bath of a voice, full of nobility, rich in harmonic depth and perfect for portrayal of the world-weary king who understands everything but can change nothing. It’s a voice that makes you relax and trust Arkel as a fount of wisdom. Loges is powerful and urgent as Golaud: his voice is attractive and manly, and he convinces in each of his different moods. Helen Johnson makes an appealing foil for Druiett as Geneviève, his queen.

The lead roles are more problematic. For the opera to work, Mélisande must make us believe in her as a fragile, intangible creature from another world, while Pelléas must make it inevitable that she shall fall in love with him: if they are simply conventional lovers, Debussy’s music will fail to weave its magic spell. Susanna Hurrell and Jonathan McGovern both sang confidently and competently, but neither approached the exceptional standard that is needed for us to suspend our disbelief and feel their events as a fate-driven tragedy rather than as a simple consequence of their very human and avoidable failings.

Susanna Hurrell (Mélisande) and Jonathan McGovern (Pélleas) © Richard Hubert Smith
Susanna Hurrell (Mélisande) and Jonathan McGovern (Pélleas)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The acoustically hard environment of the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre didn’t do the music any favours. Jonathan Berman conducted with energy, clarity and admirable phrasing, but with a reduced number of players in the orchestra to suit the smaller venue, there was little chance of a lush, impressionistic blending of sound: this is one score in which I would prefer that the totality of the orchestral sound should take precedence over the clarity of individual instruments.

Oliver Townsend’s setting is based on plain panels onto which patterns are projected, with clever use of a gauze screen to create separate worlds at the front and back of the stage. Some neat lighting tricks permit characters to seem to appear out of nothingness. But the overall effect isn’t consistent: stylised walls and castle towers which might be used to create an effect of an ancient, intangible world are matched to humdrum costumes and strange modern artifacts such as free standing theatre lights and an overturned filing cabinet. When the only way of knowing that we’re in the castle grounds or at an ancient well is that we’ve been told this in the surtitles, something’s missing. Acting performances weren’t any more than adequate, with stage movement somewhat static.

Lauren Zolezzi (Yniold) © Richard Hubert Smith
Lauren Zolezzi (Yniold)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Pelléas et Mélisande contains a great deal of ravishing music, and much of it is beautifully played and sung in this production. But this is an opera where the different elements need to come together to create some magic, which didn’t happen for me last night.