For anyone who thinks of opera as a semaphore activity with sweeping gestures, heaving chests and high anxiety, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande can be an underwhelming evening. It’s a delicate, diaphanously smoke-and-mirrors sort of opera with a narrative – of a decaying royal household undermined by a mysterious woman who turns brother against brother – that unfolds by implication and suggestion rather than emphatic statements.
The new Garsington production by Sir Michael Boyd proceeds with due care on a set of such exquisite fantasy – suggestive of an opulent but crumbling theatre foyer – that it could grace a Harry Potter film. But it’s not quite enough. Debussy’s opera needs to be delivered like a precious object, with an almost ritual intensity and closed-in focus. Boyd’s approach is simply low key. And what happens in the pit, under conductor Jac van Steen, is much the same: accomplished but unfocused.
Jonathan McGovern’s Pelléas is well sung and Andrea Carroll’s Mélisande is striking though short on mystery. The most interesting thing about the show is that we see it through the eyes of the small boy, “le petit Yniold”, who’s constantly on stage. Potentially annoying as a role, it’s done with understated charm here by the youthful William Davies.
Turning Holocaust stories into performance art is something else that needs care; and Letters from Lony, a song cycle for mezzo and piano quintet that premiered in north London’s Proms at St Jude’s, got the process about right. Composed by Ronald Corp, it was based on letters written between 1939 and 1943 by a Jewish woman in Amsterdam to her baby grandson here in England. The last of them comes from a transit camp where she’s en route to Terezin, then Auschwitz. And the unsensational banality of what she writes (or, more particularly, doesn’t write) is potent: there’s a sense of things too terrible for words which builds into asphyxiating tension. Corp’s score catches that effectively: it’s quietly conversational, emotionally disciplined. And the performers – Sarah Pring, the Chilingirian Quartet and pianist Andrew Brownell – did it proud, performing before a largely Jewish Hampstead Garden Suburb audience, listening intently and being profoundly moved. Me too.
I wasn’t quite so moved by the King’s Cambridge Choir, who also featured at St Jude’s but weren’t entirely at their best in the acoustic of the church: a handsome Lutyens building but without the soft, supportive sonic cushion of King’s Chapel. Professionalism wins through, though, under Stephen Cleobury’s vigilant direction, so we got a very decent Fauré Requiem – although it was too English for a piece that needs the smell of Paris to be real.
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