The last Welsh National Opera production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was by Peter Stein, conducted by Pierre Boulez, and featured a sheep (there were two – Blodwen and Bronwen – who appeared at alternate performances!) and a flock of badly-behaved white doves. Mélisande’s hair was nine feet long. In the current production by David Pountney, conducted by Lothar Koenigs in a relentlessly Wagnerian fashion, there is a skeletal steel tower with a spiral staircase (borrowed from the same director’s Lulu), a paddling pool and several men in animal masks, also borrowed from Lulu, to which this interpretation bears a startling resemblance. The tower isn’t the only skeletal thing on stage: a gigantic skeleton, complete with grinning skull and dangling bony arms, occupies most of the spiral staircase as if the cast – and audience – needed reminding that we’re all going to die some day.

Jurgita Adamonyte (Mélisande) and Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas) © Clive Barda
Jurgita Adamonyte (Mélisande) and Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas)
© Clive Barda

The best performance in a strong set came from Christopher Purves as Golaud, dressed like Philip II in Spanish black and silver. This wife-beating fratricide was made to seem the most sympathetic and rounded character in the opera. Purves’ beautiful baritone voice caressed Debussy’s melodic lines in a way I have never heard before, and made Golaud’s dilemmas, as he sees his wife seduced by his brother, both poignant and moving. His first encounter with Mélisande, who emerged from a placenta-like body bag after being dropped in the forest by a weird beast with a bull’s head and trailing cloak, was full of tenderness and concern. Jurgita Adamonyté, who sang Hänsel for WNO this spring, was a fresh-voiced Mélisande, with a manner that started out flirtatious and ended up rapacious, more Lulu than the usual bewildered, clumsy figure who loses both crown and wedding-ring in the ever-present puddle of water.

Old King Arkel (sturdier than usual) was sung by Scott Wilde, who made him seem the most robust and healthy of the characters filling the castle, and his first entry (to music that sounds straight out of Parsifal, the work Debussy feared most as a comparison to his own) was a wonderful Game of Thrones moment, complete with throne. His daughter-in-law Geneviève, sung by Leah-Marian Jones, was another Game of Thrones figure in a jewelled headdress and slim-fitting gown, who made this distant mother of the two princes seem warmer than she is often portrayed. Pelléas was the naive, irrepressible, boyish Jacques Imbrailo (singing the role as a “baryton Martin”), with all the charm and innocence needed to make him vulnerable to Mélisande’s confusingly mixed messages.

Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas) and Christopher Purves (Golaud) © Clive Barda
Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas) and Christopher Purves (Golaud)
© Clive Barda
Mélisande appeared to have no resistance at all to the charms (such as they were) of the Arkel family: by the end of the evening she had become pregnant by her husband Golaud; enjoyed a writhing, masturbatory encounter with Pelléas as he sat with his back to her at the foot of her tower; tumbled in wet clothes with an equally-bedraggled Arkel; and even played an ambiguous game of incy-wincy-spider with the knowing, pert and objectionable Yniold, who came on like a rampant Cherubino the moment his father Golaud’s back was turned. Only Pelléas and Golaud’s absent father, Geneviève’s husband, seemed to escape her attentions as she made her Lulu-like circuit of the castle, and one might have fancifully supposed that it was her bedside manner that brought about the father’s reported recovery.

Lighting effects did a lot to produce the innumerable scene changes between forest, well, castle, sea cave, parapet and sickroom. A star cloth worked wonders to make the starry sky come to life, although the sunrise and sunset were nothing compared to Stein’s blazing solar disk twenty-odd years ago. The pool of water cast rippling reflections upwards, but produced concerns for the health of the singers as they sloshed about in increasingly soggy costumes, up to their ankles in what cannot have been the cleanest of water, and then pouring it over their heads and into their faces, and spluttering it out in plumes of spray. It looked as if the principle health hazard in Arkel’s castle was not the unnamed malaise and ennui that affects everyone in Maeterlinck’s play, but a good old-fashioned severe chill.

Jurgita Adamonyte (Mélisande) and Christopher Purves (Golaud) © Clive Barda
Jurgita Adamonyte (Mélisande) and Christopher Purves (Golaud)
© Clive Barda

The last scene was embellished by a Doctor (sung by Stephen Wells) who was the dead spit of Claude Debussy, as if the composer had turned up on his own set to see what had become of his creations. Arkel presided, Golaud cradled his wounds, Mélisande sat up in a hospital bed, seemingly unaware that she had given birth to a daughter, who seemed to be destined to follow the same terrible trajectory (and no, pace the surtitles, “It is awful” does not adequately translate  Arkel’s “C’est terrible”).

In the end, the weight and solemnity of Koenigs’ conducting did more to conceal than to reveal the delicate textures of Debussy’s score, while still allowing the singers the space to let their voices communicate unhindered. This was one of many paradoxes about this curious and in the end unfulfilling production.