First published in The Times, Monday February 27 2017
For lengthy stretches of David McVicar’s new production of Debussy’s only completed opera, the audience is confronted with a plain black curtain while the orchestra plays between scenes. This element may be borne of necessity: after all, these interludes were written to cover scenery changes. Still, it is a striking feature of McVicar’s production for Scottish Opera that the director repeatedly seeks to facilitate our intense engagement with the music, consistently drawing attention to the ways in which Debussy’s score fills out the ellipses in the enigmatic story.
Indeed, the live action is sombrely lit, at points in near-darkness. The arresting designs, created by Rae Smith (set and costumes) and Paule Constable (lighting), who previously collaborated on War Horse, are based on the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi, the Danish artist. His works, with their brooding figures half-glimpsed through doorways and keyholes, and rendered in muted tones, share the sense of mystery evoked by his contemporary, the Belgian symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck, whose play inspired the opera.
Pic: Richard Campbell / Scottish Opera
In outline, the scenario looks simple: Mélisande marries the older Golaud, having been found by him in a forest, but she is drawn to Pelléas, his younger brother. In this production, the minimalism of the mise-en-scène is matched by palpable restraint on the part of the director and performers. There are entire sequences here in which McVicar simply arranges singers within the space, creating a series of almost motionless tableaux that once again places extraordinary emphasis on the music’s emotional richness.
The leads respond with subtle performances. The scene in which Mélisande (Carolyn Sampson) hesitantly allows Pelléas (Andrei Bondarenko) to toy with her hair is a master class in simmering erotic tension. Sampson sings with a quiet intensity that belies her character’s ethereal appearance. Bondarenko, though lacking clarity of diction, displays an appealing blend of physical vigour and emotional openness. The interplay between the voices and the orchestra, conducted by Stuart Stratford, is accomplished with seamless grace.
Another effect of all this stillness and understatement is to render the escalation of passions post-interval all the more heart-rending. The climactic scene between the lovers is intensely moving while Roland Wood betrays agonising internal conflict in the role of Golaud. The slow fade of the final deathbed scene proves strangely cathartic, for all its bleakness.
By refusing to provide easy answers to an inscrutable work, McVicar keeps returning our focus to the lyricism of the libretto and the score’s mix of the predictable and the unexpected. Debussy’s opera sits within the tradition of Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), and this production, more than most, makes us sit up and take notice of the ways in which its various elements interact, often to visceral effect.
Box office: 0844 871 7647, to March 4; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, March 7-11. Scottishopera.org.uk