There are probably a handful of operas in the core repertoire which could have been named after a different character: Strauss and Hofmannsthal wanted for a while to name Der Rosenkavalier after Baron Ochs, and, although he gets despatched with an act to go, a good Scarpia should inspire similar thoughts in Tosca. Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande is another, and especially so in Marco Arturo Marelli’s 2012 production for the Finnish National Opera.

Camilla Tilling (Mélisande) and Laurent Naouri (Golaud) © Sakari Viika
Camilla Tilling (Mélisande) and Laurent Naouri (Golaud)
© Sakari Viika

Here he is shown, rifle in mouth, on the point of adding a splash of red to the monochrome sets at the start and the end of the evening. In between, he skulks and stumbles around, often with bottle in hand, part restless soul, part ultimate buzzkill. Laurent Naouri, a stalwart of the role, further dominated by dint of the easy authority of his voice – big, baleful and well projected – and the directness of his diction: he was the only native speaker in the cast, and it showed. His scene with Mia Heikinnen’s excellent Yniold, so often a dramatic high-point of the work, was especially forceful and threatening.

Camilla Tilling’s an experienced Mélisande, too, and made a strong impression through the purity of her soprano and concentrated, economical acting. There was no doubting the commitment of Ville Rusanen’s Pelléas, either, with the Finnish baritone throwing himself fully into both the role and, on several occasions, the big pool of water that’s central to Marelli’s production. But his is not the most mellifluous of baritones, and much of Debussy’s higher-lying writing had to be put across with a forcefulness that seems to contradict both character and, in general, the atmosphere of the work.

Camilla Tilling (Mélisande) © Sakari Viika
Camilla Tilling (Mélisande)
© Sakari Viika

Indeed, despite some beautiful and atmospheric tableaux (plus, in the lighting, an unusually close adherence to the colours mentioned in in Maeterlinck’s words), Marelli’s take occasionally feels more literal than symbolist. Having plumped for water covering much of the stage, the director leaves himself little room for manoeuvre, but nevertheless provides a single set – a grey, rugged structure set at an angle – that can be tweaked to offer a surprising amount of variety. A small space set stage right in the back wall offers the opportunity for various bedside vigils as sideshows, while columns and walkways add further texture. A simple rowing boat is a constant prop, though one that is arguably overused, no more so than when it doubles as Mélisande’s bed in the final act – although it does allow for her to be gently guided out through another opening into a sunset at the close.

The action, as far as it is, is clearly told, but Marelli, perhaps uncomfortable with the space for interpretation left open by Maeterlinck, occasionally offers a little too much busyness. As Pelléas readies himself for departure, for example, he is joined by his father – an added silent role – as well as a rejuvenated Arkel (the melancholy, moving if slightly underpowered Jyrki Korhonen) and Lilli Paasikivi’s Geneviève who, suddenly morphed into fussing grandma, also provides a picnic.

Camilla Tilling (Mélisande) and Ville Rusanen (Pelléas) © Sakari Viika
Camilla Tilling (Mélisande) and Ville Rusanen (Pelléas)
© Sakari Viika

There was certainly no similar sense, though, from the pit. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Debussy’s wonderful score with patience, an impeccable ear for colour and a bristling sense of those tensions that are never far from the surface. The orchestra played beautifully for him, which bodes well for the Ring they are to embark upon at the beginning of next season. There was coolness, calm and quasi-objectivity in the early scenes, and a strong feeling of that heavy, dank sense of lost pageantry that pervades this kingdom of the imagination.

But the rush of drama as jealousy and suspicion increasingly infect Golaud was visceral, while the quiet, ambivalent passions unleashed at the start of Act 4 were movingly conveyed. Some quibbles, then, but much to admire in such musical foundations, and the firm dramatic anchor of Naouri’s central performance.


Hugo's press trip was sponsored by the Finnish Foreign Ministry

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