There are deliberately no easy answers in Debussy’s only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, the story of a mysterious toxic love triangle at the turn of the last century. All the best stories hold a fascination long after curtain down requiring us to join our own dots, for the deep intrigue in this opera is what is not said or seen, leaving us to imagine what takes place before the opera starts and during the musical interludes between the many scenes.

Carolyn Sampson (Mélisande) and Andrei Bondarenko (Pelléas) © Richard Campbell
Carolyn Sampson (Mélisande) and Andrei Bondarenko (Pelléas)
© Richard Campbell

The paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi feature plain grey or brown interiors with doors ajar offering us glimpses into adjoining rooms, usually peopled by figures looking away from us. The monochromatic beautifully bleak pictures make us curious about the partially seen activity in the next rooms, mirroring the untold elements in this opera. Director Sir David McVicar references the images in this stylish and thoughtful production for Scottish Opera.

Golaud of Allemond, hunting deep in the forest, comes upon a beautiful young girl, Mélisande, beside a pool. A fairytale beginning is shattered as Mélisande is so profoundly traumatised she refuses to be touched and forbids Golaud to retrieve a crown she has dropped in the water. Every alarm bell should be ringing, but by the next scene, somehow they are married and have come to live in the kingdom’s grim castle where Mélisande and Pelléas, Golaud’s half-brother, become slowly attracted to each other, and things spiral. A series of ten short scenes over the first three acts gives us a few key events, but provide no answers as to Mélisande’s mysterious background. Golaud recognises what might be going on and uses Yniold, his son from his previous marriage, to spy on the couple. The unremitting gloom of the sparsely furnished steely grey rooms of the castle and the dark woods surrounding it only focus Mélisande’s fragility and growing unhappiness, played out in the five scenes over the final two acts.

Rae Smith’s ingeniously effective single set with drop-ins is directly inspired by Hammershøi with spartan minimalist interiors in brown or steely grey, open doors and an invasive forest of thin tree trunks blocking out the sun. Faithful to the times of the opera and painter, her costumes are Edwardian with sumptuous ivory fabrics for Mélisande. Paule Constable brings the set vibrantly to life with a truly magnificent lighting plot, using subtle washes to glint off the building creating overall menace, shafts of diffuse light through windows, and some wonderful shadowplay ‘Third Man’ style on the castle walls for the lovers’ final meeting. When the few moments of brightness come, they are all the more devastating.

Andrei Bondarenko (Pelléas) and Carolyn Sampson (Mélisande) © Richard Campbell
Andrei Bondarenko (Pelléas) and Carolyn Sampson (Mélisande)
© Richard Campbell

Influenced by Wagner, each act of Debussy’s opera is a continuous musical sweep, the singing not in arias but conversational. In a strongly sung cast, baritone Roland Wood was a sonorously gruff Golaud, genuinely perplexed by events, tender until he finally cracks under the strain. He was well matched by Ukrainian baritione Andrei Bondarenko as Pelléas, in strong voice if not always clear. Carolyn Sampson, a delicate Mélisande with her waist-long hair, gave a spellbinding performance, notably in the tower scene, praying as she brushes out her long tresses. The lovers were well supported by Alastair Miles as the blind King of Allemond and Anne Mason as Geneviève, the mother of Golaud and Pelléas. Treble Cedric Amaroo was a characterful and troubled Yniold on opening night, particularly touching in the disturbing scenes with his father.

Carolyn Sampson (Mélisande) and Roland Wood (Golaud) © Richard Campbell
Carolyn Sampson (Mélisande) and Roland Wood (Golaud)
© Richard Campbell

In the pit, conductor Stuart Stratford drew consistently glowing playing from the orchestra, the large section of muted strings creating a misty dreaminess, with delicate lustrous colouring from the woodwind and harps. The wonderful music linking the scenes in particular was insightful, giving us clues to explain the unseen action in the story. Forces overwhelmed the singers at a few points where some French diction could have been sharper, a small niggle in an enthralling evening.

Andrei Bondarenko (Pelléas) and Alastair Miles (Arkel) © Richard Campbell
Andrei Bondarenko (Pelléas) and Alastair Miles (Arkel)
© Richard Campbell

Mysteries remain unanswered, but details like the handfuls of dead leaves on the stage throughout only underlined the tragic ending we knew was coming from the beginning, and the probability that Mélisande’s new-born daughter faces a life trapped in the stygian gloom. Pelléas et Mélisande can’t be described as a hopeful opera, yet McVicar’s painterly vision tells the symbolic tale magnificently.