Claude Debussy was no stranger to Sussex. In 1905, he corrected the proofs of La Mer while staying at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne. But did he ever make it to Lewes or call in at Glyndebourne? It was decades before John Christie established his opera festival and there would have been no Organ Room in the manor house by this stage, but this doesn’t stop Stefan Herheim choosing it as the setting for his new production of Pelléas et Mélisande. Christopher Purves’ Golaud, with side-parting, goatee beard and tweeds, bears an uncanny resemblance to Debussy himself.

<i>Pelléas et Mélisande</i> at Glyndebourne © Richard Hubert Smith
Pelléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne
© Richard Hubert Smith

Herheim enjoys making the composer the star of his show: Rossini looms larger than life in his Cenerentola; Prince Yeletsky assumes the mantle of Tchaikovsky in his terrific Queen of Spades; and his Parsifal is partially set in Wagner’s house, Wahnfried. If Debussy is Golaud here, then the composer also seems embodied in his youthful half-brother, Pelléas, whose straw boater and striped blazer are just like the photo of the composer picnicking with his daughter, Chouchou. The entire opera takes place within Glyndebourne’s Organ Room, although Philipp Fürhofer’s set opens out with stylish flair so the organ pipes seem to become a dense forest and water ripples from the multi-purpose trapdoor to become a pool, well, a fountain, dissolving on the walls.

Christina Gansch (Mélisande) and John Chest (Pelléas) © Richard Hubert Smith
Christina Gansch (Mélisande) and John Chest (Pelléas)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Debussy’s gauzy score, half-whispered, shadowy, is shrouded in ambiguity. Herheim is happy to blur things further in a production that’s an enigma. We’re never entirely sure who Mélisande is or where she’s come from. Characters are afraid of the truth, speaking in half riddles, rarely giving a straight answer to a straight question. Action does not always match text, further muddying the waters. The shielding of characters’ eyes reflects references to blindness and vision in the libretto. Golaud puts out Pelléas’ eyes before killing him. Are we blinkered? Do we only see what we choose to see? In this dreamlike production, the Norwegian director isn’t offering any easy answers although his stagecraft can be breathtaking.

Art – and the creation of art – is a Herheim hook. Landscape paintings are illuminated from behind to represent the gardens. Pelléas loosens Mélisande’s hair with a brush, tangling it in one of the empty easels brought in by the three blind beggars. Golaud’s son, Yniold, is a constant presence at the fringes, innocently sketching nature... or is he documenting Mélisande’s burgeoning relationship with her brother-in-law? When Golaud tries to extract information from his “son”, he sexually abuses him while Chloé Briot’s bright-toned Yniold furiously scribbles. Red hair tumbles from her head as Golaud rips off her cap, while a naked Mélisande double, her modesty protected by cascading auburn locks, appears in the organ console, looking like Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith. The symbolism overload is inebriating.

Chloé Briot (Yniold) and Christopher Purves (Golaud) © Richard Hubert Smith
Chloé Briot (Yniold) and Christopher Purves (Golaud)
© Richard Hubert Smith

On opening night, Robin Ticciati drew refined playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, strings veiled, woodwinds atmospheric. Glyndebourne’s casting was a mixed success. Austrian soprano Christina Gansch was a splendid, dewy-toned Mélisande, floating ethereal notes enticingly. The high-lying role of Pelléas seemed a touch too uncomfortable for baritone John Chest, cracking a top note and sometimes sounding under-powered, despite some mellifluous singing elsewhere. Christopher Purves was a gruff Golaud (in variable French) and his portrayal as skulking torturer made him a far less sympathetic figure than usual. With an indisposed Brindley Sherratt miming, Richard Wiegold was in glorious, stentorian voice as Arkel, King of Allemonde, while Karen Cargill’s voluptuous mezzo graced the under-developed role of Geneviève.

John Chest (Pelléas) and Christina Gansch (Mélisande) © Richard Hubert Smith
John Chest (Pelléas) and Christina Gansch (Mélisande)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The specificity of the Glyndebourne setting is entirely extraneous. If you didn’t recognise the location, the production still makes its point: Mélisande is an outsider, drawn into the folds of a dysfunctional family whose claustrophobic grip suffocates her. Herheim has admitted that initial plan was to set it all in a space station. Perhaps that was too soon after Claus Guth’s Bohème in Space wheeze for Paris to be viable, but stuffy confinement in a vacuum is the key. What it doesn’t need is the clumsy nudge in the ribs Herheim delivers at the very end. Instead of closing with Arkel comforting Golaud after Mélisande’s death, the postlude plays to present day operagoers traipsing through the Organ Room during the long interval, causing titters among the audience. At least we were spared a picnic hamper.