Pelleas et Melisande

William Wadsworth 19 February 2010

7.45pm West Road Concert Hall, Wed 17th-Sat 20th February 2010


Funny thing, opera. It is entirely possible, as in the case of the chap in the row behind me tonight, to leave commenting “Well, I didn’t really know what was going on there” – yet having appreciated every minute. For while non-speakers such as myself have to balance watching the show with glancing up at the subtitles, you are bound to leave feeling thoroughly cultured and just a little bit awed at how well some people in Cambridge can sing.

The show’s unassailable strength, then, was the sheer quality of the music. The voices on display were truly magnificent; none of the principles would have sounded out of place in a professional production. Inevitably lacking any significant variation in the age of the performers themselves, some intelligent casting neatly solved the problem of portraying three different generations. More resonant singers played older characters: from the juvenile, thin voice of the young Yniold (Josephine Stephenson) right up to the rich and sonorous tones of King Arkel (Christopher Law). The singers were ably accompanied by a first-rate orchestra, exuberantly conducted by Christopher Stark. The thirty odd players were rock-solid throughout, with lush string tone and proficient solos from various winds, but occasionally overpowered some of the voices onstage.

 Happily, the show mostly looked as good as it sounded. Rob Mills’ production design consisting of a bleak, minimalist set and cold lighting scheme complemented the score beautifully, it was just unfortunate that on a couple of occasions the actors and the lights did not quite manage to find each other. The art of tastefully distressing costumes is a difficult one to master, and for my taste, Otava Piha perhaps fell a little wide of the mark. That said, for the most part they looked quite effective under the lights.

Madeline Claire de Berrie’s direction was often strong, and there were some excellent emotional performances, especially from Melisande herself (Louise Kemeny). Great acting, however, was sadly not ubiquitous. The spectacular afro of Pelleas (Gwilym Bowen) was not quite enough to lift him from being just a little flat throughout, and all of the performers were at least a little bit guilty of over-reliance on the expression in the voice alone to communicate with the audience.

The biggest thing which let the show down though was simply a lack of polish. Each scene was elegantly crafted and well-executed, but the production was far from slick. What detracted from the professional quality found elsewhere in the show were vast tracts of time during which the stage was black and no music was playing. Little thought seemed to have been given to making the show flow smoothly, and as a result, it dragged somewhat. This was not helped by a number of lengthy orchestral interludes – although beautifully played, they added nothing to the show: they had, after all, been added last-minute by Debussy to cover up some painfully long and complicated scene changes.

Putting to one side a lack of slickness and the first-night lighting and subtitling errors (I particularly enjoyed “childrena”), Pelleas et Melisande is a remarkable showcase of student talent, and should without doubt be added to your “to do” list for this week. If nothing else, you’ll get your dose of real culture for a while – so you can go home and watch your favourite cheese, trash or filth with a completely clean conscience.

William Wadsworth