Friday, October 12, 2018

A superlative cast, music of finesse and a seamlessly beautiful staging in Victorian Opera's Pelléas et Mélisande

It took until 1977 for Pelléas and Mélisande, Claude Debussy’s sole operatic output that reached the stage in its premiere at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1902, to receive its first professional staging in Australia. That was in the heftier days of the state opera company, then known as Victorian State Opera under the late Richard Divall. With the now revived Victorian Opera in its 11th year, it’s welcome to see Debussy’s unique and poetically eloquent work presented to a new audience. On top of that, at the majestic Palais Theatre for its opening on Thursday night, it was refreshing to see that the audience included a generous percentile of young attendees half my age - and I haven’t even gone grey yet.

Angus Wood as Pelléas and Siobhan Stagg as Mélisande
Perhaps that was, in part, due to the drawing power of the company’s new associations with young blood from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM). Conductor and Artistic Director of Victorian Opera Richard Mills must be as proud as punch with the more than 60 ANAM pit musicians for they played the score’s seeping transparent soundscape with the utmost finesse, fine balance and even support - musically and artistically, a winning collaboration.

So too was the seamless beauty achieved by director Elizabeth Hill and her creative team in delivering production standards second-to-none. Set and costume designer Candice MacAllister’s clever, elegant and unfussy designs worked a treat in capturing the multiple scene shifts. Three moveable and mirrored bayed pods easily evoked the exterior and various rooms of the castle in the story’s mythical kingdom of Allemonde, working a treat in capturing every one of 15 of them over its 5 acts. Though not always literal in reflecting the duality of light and dark that resides in the storytelling, no one could doubt the power and indispensability of Joseph Mercurio’s stunning palettes of aqueous lighting to the overall effect. 

Despite lacking set arias, ensemble and melodious threads, the work’s approachability comes gently, like a slow-growing creeper waiting for spring to bloom while, advancing through its branches, a poison begins to take affect - a work that paints a picture that stretches well beyond its own canvas. 

Samuel Dundas as Golaud and Siobhan Stagg as Mélisande
Based on the 1892 play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the subject of Pelléas et Mélisande is a love triangle set in a vaguely Medieval world, somewhat like Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde which Debussy had seen in Bayreuth. Contrasts and opposites feature large - between man and woman, light and dark, blindness and shadow, the natural world and human nature, of truth and the unspoken as part of its infused symbolism. These contrasts play out within something of a domestic drama. Widowed older brother (Golaud), whose grandfather (King Arkel) has marriage plans already in place, marries young mysterious beauty (Mélisande). Younger half-brother (Pelléas) and said beauty fall in love. The dramatic course changes abruptly when Mélisande loses her wedding ring, Golaud unreasonably demands that she retrieve it in the dark of night and take Pelléas with her for protection. 

To bring life to the characters, Victorian Opera have assembled a superlative cast.  Pelléas and Mélisande carry the opera’s title but Golaud is a formidable hinge and a complexly depicted force. Baritone Samuel Dundas gave a brilliant interpretation of the character, exploring Golaud’s seemingly kind and harmless beginnings and increasing volatility and suspicion. Dundas, solid and sure in voice, brought excitement to every scene, especially at his rise in rage with his son Yniold - an endearing bright-voiced Sophia Wasley - in which, trying to get blood out of a stone, he uses his son as a tool in Act 3.

Seen more often on Berlin’s Deutsche Oper stage, it was a coup in having the exquisitely nuanced Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg back home to give a beguiling debut in the role of Mélisande. Stagg brought layers of colour to Mélisande’s character and vocal splendour to match. Stagg’s gestures captured the enigmatic, curious and playful to the tender, distant and despondent young woman who succumbs to a tragedy she fears unavoidable, the voice’s liquid class and affecting iridescence one hopes to see back in Melbourne again soon. 

Liane Keegan, David Parkin, Siobhan Stagg and Sophia Wasley

As her Pelléas, warm and resonant Australian tenor Angus Wood, who likewise has a growing international career, brought together a fine combination of manliness and innocence to the role. Together with Stagg, the pair built their affections gradually, with understanding and a slice of ambiguity that one always feels pervades the story. Their Act 4 encounter, when Mélisande lets her hair down from the tower for Pelléas to caress, provided not only a climax in their romantic discoveries and vocal current, but was deftly resolved with a long ribbon unfurling from the heights which Pelléas took hold of and splitting into three parts with each manipulated by a dancer.

David Parkin becomes more and more a marvellous interpreter and his deeply creviced and flinty bass was in its finest form as King Arkel. As the king’s supportive wife Geneviève, Liane Keegan’s plush and impactful vocals added broad support and fresh from the Herald Sun Aria Final, baritone Stephen Marsh gave a strong performance as the Physician in the final scene - a highlight of dramatic interplay as Mélisande takes her last breath. 

With just two performances, Victorian Opera’s Pelléas et Mélisande will all but disappear quickly but it’s seductive and ethereal quality will last long after as one to remember for those fortunate to experience it. 

Pelléas et Mélisande
Victorian Opera
Palais Theatre 
Until 13th October, 2001

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

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