|Das Wunder der Heliane meets the ghost of Pélléas?|
Photo: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd, by Richard Hubert Smith
Perhaps Stefan Herheim's concept would play better in central Europe or Scandinavia, where productions are often more heavily dramaturged [yes, I know, no such word] than is usually the case here, and where audiences have arguably grown to expect controversy on stage plus abstruse references laid on with the trowel. And perhaps the setting of Glyndebourne's Organ Room - recreated with useful additions such as concertina-folding organ pipes and sliding walls - would have played better if habitual Glyndebourne patrons had not seen umpteen other productions of other operas also set within Glyndebourne itself, to the point that this jumps aboard the most massive of local clichés.
It is nevertheless a valid starting point: the action takes place in a grand, dark, oppressive old house/castle and, as my companion for the evening remarked, how many of us have not wandered through such a place and wondered what secrets it is hiding in its past? (Or is Herheim trying to tell us something about the age-old secrets of Glyndebourne? I sincerely hope not.) Perhaps part of the idea is about the Christies staging dramatics in their organ room. But what is inexcusable is to have Debussy's final bars obscured by audience laughter as actors clad as present-day Glyndebourne punters wander onto the stage, looking around. No. Just no.
Everyone seems to be blinding each other. Yes, the text makes ample reference to blindness, but nothing in this text is literal: must it be spelled out to that degree? If there is a benefit to the storytelling, it's eluded me thus far. And Golaud, Pélléas and Yniold all frantically mime painting on empty easels. Yes, Debussy was a contemporary of the great Impressionist painters, but that doesn't make this appropriate, insightful or comprehensible, even if perhaps excusable.
What's with the Christ-like figure that appears in the middle of the organ, just as Arkel tells Mélisande she must issue in a new era...with a sheep draped over its shoulders? Sacramental imagery, says a Twitter contact. Yes, we get that (and Herheim changes Yniold's shepherd into a priest), even if we don't necessarily get its point - but the bottom line is that it looks completely ridiculous and everyone laughed, and you don't want that to happen in the middle of Pélléas.
Or maybe you do...and that would be worse, because it means you are not taking the work on its own terms or presenting your audience with something conceived in its true spirit, in which case why should we go? Moreover, having Golaud rape his own son/daughter Yniold is a major misjudgment in a scene that is upsetting enough as Debussy and Maeterlinck created it - and leaves Pélléas novices seriously confused ("But why does he do that?" "Well, actually, he doesn't...").
Nevertheless, there's a sprinkling of wonderful ideas too. Mélisande is portrayed (by the excellent Christina Gansch) as a complete pre-Raphaelite beauty, overwhelming in her seductive presence, and she seems to have healing powers; also, she recoils when Golaud faces her with his sword presented as a cross. There's always a mystery about her; no reason she shouldn't be at least partly supernatural. Golaud (a tour de force from Christopher Purves) is a violent psychopath, as destroyed by his own malady as any Otello. Pelléas is under-characterised, though mostly well sung by John Chest. The division of body and soul for Mélisande at the start of the final scene works nicely, as does having the ghost of Pélléas lurking around, waiting for her to join him – though I'm not sure why he has to run her through with a sword when she's about to snuff it in any case. Some of these images come over more as Das Wunder der Heliane than Pélléas, and I can't really think of two more different operas.
As you'll have gathered, a lot of visual ideas are crammed in here, layer upon layer upon layer. Yet Debussy's music is so subtle, so delicate, so hinted-at, that it's completely overpowered by the on-stage shenanigans. By the end one feels exhausted by all the "WTF now?" moments, and might be longing for the privilege of hearing a concert performance instead – preferably with Robin Ticciati conducting it every bit as beautifully, intelligently and ineffably as he does here.
In the past few years Ticciati has had to take some time off for a back operation, which has somewhat disrupted his tenure as Glyndebourne's music director. But in that time, he has been reinventing his whole approach to conducting (as he told me in an interview last year) - and now the results are becoming more and more interesting. Something in him has deepened and darkened and opened out. I'm getting the impression that we may have here a very significant musician indeed, someone who has further to go interpretatively than some of the supposedly glitzier, more superficially exciting podium presences. I hope I'm still around to see where he is in 25 years' time.
|Nina Stemme as Kundry, with ex-equine friend|
Photo: Ruth Walz
Concert performances, meanwhile, have a lot going for them. I spent yesterday afternoon and evening holed up with the webcast of Parsifal from the Bavarian State Opera, this being the first summer in a number of years that I'm not going physically to Munich. (Hallelujah, medals and science prizes galore, please, to whoever created the technology that makes webcasts possible and quality sound available on the computer.) What a musical treat: Kirill Petrenko on fire with spiritual joy in the pit, the orchestra playing the living daylights out of the piece, Nina Stemme the most astounding Kundry - and Kundry the most astounding Nina Stemme - that I've yet had the joy of hearing, Christian Gerhaher a dream of an Amfortas, Rene Pape channelling Gurnemanz in person, and Jonas Kaufmann tracing Parsifal's growth and strength incrementally, with That Voice. The production, by Pierre Audi, is strong, straightforward and clear, never confused or confusing. The Grail is meat in act I and music itself at the end of act 3: we are saved by art alone. Bravi. But the visual art is by the great Georg Baselitz and though many images are effective, at other times one just has to look the other way. A concert performance would solve that in one fell swoop. This probably sounds uncharacteristically philistine, so blame the heat if you like.