Introducing... Pelléas et Mélisande

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Our Introducing… series takes a look at Festival 2018’s new production of Debussy’s hauntingly beautiful Pelléas et Mélisande.

In this short film we speak to Christopher Purves, fresh from his acclaimed performance in the title role of Saul in 2015 and the Forester in last year’s The Cunning Little Vixen, about his passion for the opera and his excitement at playing the role of Golaud in next summer’s staging.

Need to know

A musical fantasy charged with unspoken desires, Debussy’s hauntingly beautiful Pelléas et Mélisande is an opera unlike any other – driven by its sensuous orchestral score, a musical shadow-play of light and darkness. Against this dark, richly-textured musical backdrop emotions are strikingly silhouetted, animated by the simple urgency of Debussy’s vocal writing and by a timeless story of love and jealousy, framed by the forests, caves and the castle of the magical kingdom of Allemonde. Stefan Herheim, one of Europe’s most original imaginations, will be directing this new staging, which follows in the footsteps of Glyndebourne’s memorable and much-loved productions by Graham Vick and Carl Ebert.

Out hunting in the forest one day, Prince Golaud meets the mysterious Mélisande. He falls instantly in love with this beautiful girl, and brings her home to the castle of Allemonde as his bride. But how much does he really know of Mélisande’s own thoughts and desires?

When a friendship springs up between Mélisande and his young half-brother Pelléas, Golaud initially encourages it. But jealousy gradually poisons his thoughts, turning innocence into obscenity and trust into suspicion, driving him to an act of violence that threatens to destroy both a family and a kingdom.

Graham Vick’s much loved 1999 production of Pelléas et Mélisande

Why this opera

The hazy, evocative beauty of Debussy’s piano Preludes and the raw, joyous orchestral power of La mer so loved by concert-goers are here amplified in the composer’s only opera into a drama of human emotions. The composer himself may not have embraced the term ‘impressionist’, but Debussy’s shimmering whirls of orchestral colour are to music as a Monet sunrise or a Whistler Nocturne are to art.

This is music that unfolds in suggestions rather than statements, gorgeous sonic landscapes full of light and shade, rich in texture and instrumental detail. Pelléas et Mélisande is opera freed from tradition and convention, speaking a musical language that flows as instinctively and naturally as speech. Dark sea-caves and brooding forests all emerge evocatively in Debussy’s filmic writing.

Cast and creative team

Making his much-anticipated Glyndebourne debut with Pelléas et Mélisande is award-winning Norwegian director Stefan Herheim. One of the most important and influential figures in opera, Herheim is a leading creative voice of his generation, with one of the most distinctive visual styles, and his productions offer a new angle on even the most familiar works.

Joining Herheim for this exciting new production is Glyndebourne’s own music director Robin Ticciati. A passionate champion of Debussy’s elusively lovely score, Ticciati will also be conducting the revival of Richard Jones’s Der Rosenkavalier during this 2018 season.

Fresh from an astonishing, much-praised performance in the title role of Glyndebourne’s Saul, British baritone Christopher Purves returns in another psychologically complex role as Golaud – Debussy’s troubled prince and jealous husband.

Two young singers make their Glyndebourne debuts in the opera’s title roles. Rising Austrian soprano and winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Award, Christina Gansch is Mélisande, while American baritone John Chest, a finalist in the 2016 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, is Pelléas.

Glyndebourne favourite Brindley Sherratt will, unusually, be playing two different roles in this year’s Festival. He appears both in Pelléas et Mélisande, as the old king Arkel, and in Der Rosenkavalier as the libidinous Baron Ochs.

Brindley Sherratt, Billy Budd 2013, Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Things to look out for

Debussy’s score for Pelléas et Mélisande mixes an alluring palette of French impressionism tinged with potent Wagnerian grandeur and mysticism. Orchestral colours constantly change to reflect the dark, unfathomable mystery of the setting as well as the sudden, but striking moments of illumination. The boundaries of time, place and human motivation are blurred by music which subtly poses as many unanswered questions as the characters ask each other on stage.

Dining package

Make your visit to Glyndebourne truly first-class by taking advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a fine dining experience on selected dates when you book to see both our new productions, Vanessa and Pelléas et Mélisande for only £365. Click here for more information.

Pelléas et Mélisande is on stage at Festival 2018 from 30 June–9 August – book now..

Pelléas et Mélisande is supported by André and Rosalie Hoffmann