Not all operas or performances are about the singers. The star of the Welsh National Opera’s performance of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Hong Kong Arts Festival was its orchestra and conductor Lothar Koenigs who did Claude Debussy’s seamless score proud.
Debussy’s only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande is something of a rarity, certainly out here, perhaps because it is in some ways the antithesis of what many think opera is all about. There are no “tunes”, no swelling chords, no highwire high notes, no great emotional climaxes. The oblique story is taken from a late-19th-century Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Prince Goulod, lost in woods, finds a distraught young woman weeping by a spring. We never know why, nor why she refuses to allow Goulod to retrieve her crown from the water. He falls in love and returns to the dark castle of his grandfather King Arkel with Mélisande as his wife. Over the next three-quarters of the opera, Goulod’s half-brother Pelléas falls in love with Mélisande, feelings which are (possibly) returned. It ends, as such things do, in tragedy, with Goulod finding them together as Pelléas is about to leave for good; Goulod kills Pelléas. In the final scene, Mélisande—united with the baby she has just given birth to—quietly expires while Goulod demands “the truth”.
It is all deliberately anti-realist, philosophical and dreamlike. Water (and tears) play an important role throughout, to the extent of being reflected in the liquid consonants of the characters’ names. The result, for better or worse, is some extraordinarily evocative music, but an opera that makes its appeal to the intellect rather than the heart.
Pelléas et Mélisande is not an obvious star vehicle for the performers. And when the play is more about symbols and atmosphere than characterization, there are few opportunities for acting. Notwithstanding, Lithuania mezzo-soprano Jurgita Adamonyté stood out as the mysterious, unknowable, ambivalent Mélisande.
The production was vaguely medieval with bits of armor and fur-lined cloaks, some bare chests. An open, prison-like tower in the form of a skeleton dominated the stage. This, combined with the atmospherics and somewhat unnatural plot gave the work a Gormenghast feel or—as perhaps it struck me some way through—“Game of Thrones” (a connection, I found out later, that had been made by at least a couple of reviews of the original 2015 production).
The drawback was the large, shallow pond in center-stage. This, in apparent reflection of the theme of water that pervades the work, resulted in considerable sloshing about and performing in wet clothing.
The orchestra, thankfully, remained dry. The applause was well-deserved.
Pelléas et Mélisande continues Saturday 17 March. A version of this review runs at HKELD.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.