Review: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande by the Welsh National Opera (HKAF 2018)
Debussy’s only opera seethes with delicious darkness and brilliant production value from the Welsh National Opera
The Welsh National Opera first staged Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 2015 to rave reviews, with a particular focus on its intriguing set design and modern take on the opera. And now, with the Hong Kong Arts Festival, they’ve toured it to the far East, complete with most of the original cast and creative team in a spectacular restaging.
Directed by David Poutney and conducted by Lothar Koenigs, Pelléas et Mélisande is an incredibly dark and moody tragedy, opening ominously as a man in a bull-mask drops off a mysterious body bag before scampering off. From that body bag, the terrifyingly beautiful Melisande is birthed, and after being discovered by Prince Golaud, sets off a chain of events that will tear apart the royal family, one member at a time.
It’s little wonder that Johan Engels elaborate set design helped it win Best Opera Production at the 2016 Wales Theatre Awards. Dark and imposing, one feels the sense of evil creeping all around the stage as a skeletal stairway looms above the characters, leading to an eerie skull, huge and foreboding. This platform provides a vantage point for jealous brothers to spy on secret lovers, while surrounded by a moat of inky black water, which cast members find themselves using for the dual purpose of cleansing and torture. In the already cold theatre, one can only imagine how icy these cast members must have felt as they’re thrust into it multiple times over the course of the performance.
Similarly, Mark Jonathan’s lighting design works well to emphasis the play’s mood and themes, casting characters into shadow and harsh lighting as necessary. The HKAF takes plenty of pride in the works they bring in, and it’s impressive how for this production, the entire Orchestra and Chorus of the Welsh National Opera and Die Konzertisten were flown in from Wales, making full use of the extended orchestra pit to ensure a stronger, clearer sound that resonated throughout the theatre.
Pelléas et Mélisande also works because of its incredibly capable cast. One cannot help but root for the doomed relationship between Pelleas and Melisande, as Jacque Imbrailo and Jurgita Admonyte share strong onstage chemistry, bringing out the clandestine couple’s sexual tension and passion in just the right amounts. The believability of their affair stands in stark contrast to Christopher Purves’ jealous, brooding Golaud, as he seethes with suspicion and jealousy. Finally, Alfred Reiter and Leah-Marian Jones bring up the remainder of the cast and add a sense of regality as Arkel and Genevieve.
In its final moments, after the cast are left weeping, broken or dead, the bull-headed beast returns once again to begin the cycle anew with a new ‘Melisande’, suggesting the cyclical nature of history and tragedy. Pelléas et Mélisande is a brilliant production of a classic opera that is visually arresting, vocally stunning and wrought with the most forbidden facets of the human condition, making for a deliciously dark performance that will haunt your very soul.
Photo Credit: Clive Barda
Performance attended 17/3/18