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Nothing happens…

03/23/2000 -  and 25 March, 1, 3, 6, 8 April 2000
Claude Debussy Pelléas and Mélisande
Clive Bayley (Arkel), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Geneviéve), Garry Magee (Pelléas), Robert Hayward (Golaud), Joan Rodgers (Mélisande), David Wigram (Yniold), Roger Begley (Doctor), Andrew Tinkler (Shepherd)
Paul Daniel (conductor), Richard Jones (director)
English National Opera Orchestra

Pelléas and Mélisande risks theatrical disaster in the Coliseum. The delicate music, like the symbolist text, creates space for emotion and meaning rather than conveying them, but you can have too much space to feel in. Maeterlinck's play, a sort of pre-Raphaelite Gormenghast, traditionally has greenery-yallery decor and blank faces with light opaque eyes. Richard Jones' production, with stunning black-and-white sets by Antony McDonald, looks instead to the Symbolists' affinity with Edgar Allen Poe, and introduces a pervasive horror that reaches out into the house. Paul Daniel and the ENO orchestra deliver the music with austere clarity that emphasises the isolation and pain of the characters.

The singer's voices provide all the sensuality, pretty much all the life, in the opera. Joan Rodgers as Mélisande, a distraught vampire with long red hair that was the only nominally warm colour in the set, was sometimes lush and sometimes close to hoarse with anguish. Garry McGee's largish tenor was not quite heroic, only occasionally sweet, but definitely expressive. His  Pelléas was probably not very bright and painfully confused. Robert Hayward was a sinister, violent Golaud who often sang beautiful. Even more paradoxical was Clive Bayley's ultra-doddery Arkel, supine and waving his limbs  helplessly like a cockroach as Golaud torments Mélisande but singing gracefully and musically. Rebecca de Pont Davies was a memorably bitter Geneviéve and David Wigram a cryptic but innocent Yniold, totally destroyed by his family.

One of the triumphs of Richard Jones' production was to keep all the characters in the frame at crucial points to bring home the claustrophobia of the castle by the sea. The set represents it as a small house variously transposed, with one window at the end that is lit up at the moment Mélisande loses the ring in the well. The rooms of the castle also appear as white cells, like a prison or Christ's tomb (an image also suggested in the final scene by the white sheets and Golaud's shaggy hair and beard). And everyone is trapped.

None of it made sense, but none of it was remotely ridiculous either. The applause at the end was almost ecstatic, with cheers for the production team as well as the singers. Perhaps it was a release after the exquisitely controlled tension. Or perhaps it was acknowledgement of an amazing and profoundly  moving achievement in music theatre.

H.E. Elsom



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