What's the score? - Pelléas et Mélisande

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Everything You Need to Know About Glyndebourne’s Pelléas et Mélisande

You can get a taste of the production in this trailer:

Pelléas et Mélisande – sounds French…

Mais oui, it’s the only opera Claude Debussy ever completed – a gorgeous musical fantasy full of light and shadows. Think French Impressionism, but in sound rather than paint.

So it’s all a bit abstract?

Well, yes. But just like Monet creates wonderfully evocative landscapes out of washes of colour and texture, Debussy paints an atmosphere rather than just a literal scene. The effect is pretty intoxicating.

What’s the opera all about then?

It’s a little hard to say, but it’s essentially a love-triangle. One day when he’s out hunting in the forest, Prince Golaud finds a mysterious girl crying. He falls in love and brings her home as his wife. But when she meets his younger brother Pelléas they are instantly drawn to one another. No spoilers here, but it doesn’t end happily.

What’s so hard about that?

The opera is based on a Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Symbolist artists rejected naturalism and realism. They believed that their work should express complex, absolute truths not capable of being conveyed directly. So nothing in Pelléas is ever quite what it seems; a ring isn’t just a ring, a tower isn’t just a tower, a kiss….

Ah, I see. Ceci n’est pas un love story…

Precisely. The wonderful thing about Pelléas is that it can mean something totally different for everyone who sees it.

But what about the director, surely he knows exactly what’s going on?

Yes and no. Glyndebourne’s new production of Pelléas is directed by Stefan Herheim –

- Stefan who?

Stefan Herheim. He’s one of the boldest, most sought-after directors currently working in Europe. His productions are all about layers of meaning, and often use an opera to explore its own age or its composer’s history. You might have seen his Vepres Siciliennes at the Royal Opera recently, which relocated the action to Paris Opera and the work’s own premiere? Or his Parsifal at Bayreuth, which transformed the work into a meditation on both Germany and the festival’s own past?

I’m afraid not… But you were explaining about the production?

Yes, well Herheim wanted his Pelléas to be about storytelling itself, so his production avoids anything literal or absolute. Instead we get a gorgeous sequence of images and ideas, some that collide and some that work in harmony, creating that powerful sense of atmosphere we were talking about right at the beginning. There is no “story” as such, because he hopes that every night each member of the audience will write their own unique version.

I see. So it’s like an operatic Choose Your Own Adventure?

Something like that.

You say it’s all abstract, but the sets look awfully familiar…

I’m glad you noticed that. The production is actually set in Glyndebourne’s own Organ Room. The space has been meticulously recreated by designer Philipp Fürhofer, so you’ll recognise the wood panelling, the pictures on the walls, even the organ itself. The production nods to Glyndebourne’s own history – both as a house and an opera company.

And I’m sure I spotted Debussy himself in there somewhere too…

I couldn’t possibly comment on any resemblance between Golaud and Debussy himself, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a composer has ended up in his own opera in a Herheim production.

Ok, I’m intrigued. Anything else I should look out for?

You could spend all day finding new details in Herheim’s Pelléas, but much better just to sit back and let that his wonderful play of images and Debussy’s exquisite score wash over you.

Go deeper into the world of Pelléas et Mélisande

Intrigued? Want to know more about this dark fairytale? In this short video dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach unpicks the language and symbolism at the heart the opera.

Want to dig deeper into the opera? Listen to our podcast, presented by Katie Derham, which features the acclaimed author Kate Mosse.

Pelléas et Mélisande is on stage at Glyndebourne until 9 August 2018

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