The castle is old and sad

I wanted to see Stefan Herheim’s new Glyndebourne staging of Pelléas et Mélisande in part out of perverse curiosity. What would happen when opera’s most hyperactive extrovert directs opera’s least flamboyant, er, opera? I was on my way to the Nineteenth-Century Music Conference in Huddersfield so I went to Glyndebourne first. Also I remembered I have a blog so I decided to write about it here.

And unfortunately I think Debussy might be Herheim’s kryptonite.

Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande. Glyndebourne Festival, 6/30/2018 (new production premiere). Conductor Robin Ticciati (conductor), Stefan Herheim (director), Philipp Fürhofer (designer), London Philharmonic Orchestra, cast includes Christopher Purves (Golaud), Christina Gansch (Mélisande), Karen Cargill (Geneviève), Brindley Sherratt (Arkel, acting), Richard Wiegold (Arkel, singing) John Chest (Pelléas)

Herheim’s work is distinguished by its historical curiosity, symbolic density, and theatrical energy. There’s always a lot going on, but it has a natural feeling because however strange the stage action it moves with the music and the performers seem to be completely committed. At its best his productions have momentum, intensity, and conviction found in few other opera directors. Even when you can’t figure out what the hell he’s getting at, his work has a seductive and original quality.

Unfortunately this Glyndebourne production is not his best work, not by a long shot. It seems like a halfhearted execution of secondhand tropes.

The basic concept involves a number of familiar Herheim motives, most prominently from his Bayreuth Parsifal. Like Bayreuth, Glyndebourne is a remote festival controlled by a single family (the Christies, no relation to conductor William Christie), and Herheim’s production puts the opera into the story of its setting. For Pelléas, this means a frayed aristocratic family. Philipp Furhöfer’s set replicates the house’s Organ Room, poetically dominated by huge and silent pipes like the libretto’s mysterious forest. (Like everyone else, I trundled over to the real Organ Room during intermission; it’s right next to the theater.)


This family is disrupted with Golaud brings a young woman into the family (Mélisande, the equivalent of Audrey Mildmay, the soprano John Christie married).* As Mélisande, Christine Gansch sounded fresh and confident and strong, less ethereal than many in this role. Her Golaud was Christopher Purves, here portrayed as much older, violent, and abusive. In contrast, Pelléas is much younger, much blonder, and he and Mélisande have a love at first sight moment that is rather less subtle than usual. As Pelléas John Chest had a lovely sound though the role at times sounded a little high for him.

I wondered how the Christie family, who still run the festival, feel about this whole thing? Maybe that’s why the characters seem to have so little in common with any of the real people. Golaud isn’t much like Christie, who the Glyndebourne website describes as a “focused, determined, Pickwickian eccentric” and I can’t find a Pelléas equivalent in Glyndebourne’s history at all. Nor does Mélisande do anything indicating she’s a singer. This dilutes the concept as an exploration of Glyndebourne itself.

And as a plot for Pelléas, this frame doesn’t seem to quite fit either. What made Herheim’s Parsifal so amazing was how the Wagner family history was joined to German history, and while in Pelléas we are passing from the 1930s to 1950s anything beyond the Organ Room and the Christies remains strangely absent. Second, and perhaps this is less important, the opera festival itself never really figures. There’s a painting motive, which seems to stand in for music, an appropriate kind of ekphrasis when we are actually in an opera already, but it is barely developed. And the founding of the festival would seem to be a narrative of renewal, while Pelléas is pure decay.

The result is oddly empty. The production has its moments: a dinner gone wrong in Act 4, most notably, but it seems to reach for larger allegorical themes in a halfhearted way. Some motives almost congeal: a recurring blindness image, referenced in the plot’s “Well of the Blind” and manifest in characters covering each other’s eyes and streams of blood coming from most of the doomed characters’ eyes. Arkel, of course, is also blind, but is otherwise a fairly generic figure here. The role was acted by Brindley Sherratt, who was ill, and sung by rumbly Richard Wiegold.

The blindness theme is the kind of thing which could really work as part of Herheim’s usual denser thicket of symbols, but instead we just have occasional touches (we are also briefly visited by Jesus and his lamb, there is some suggestion of simultaneous time periods). The opera itself, of course, is also full of elusive symbols and mysterious objects (the crown, Mélisande’s hair, the ring, the well), but Herheim doesn’t really do anything with them either. It’s hard to understate how bare this is compared to the Herheim usual, and each small touch doesn’t have the clout to carry the opera. And the historical frame seems too forced to work on its own, either.

In the program Herheim says he changed his concept late in the game (after an outer space theme didn’t work out) and also says some somewhat worrying things about the opera being almost boring. I mean, he’s not quite wrong, but you don’t really want the director of the production to say that? I wonder if it’s in part the musical style—Debussy’s avoidance of tension and momentum doesn’t provide enough propulsion for Herheim’s puppet master style. But that’s just a guess.

I got the feeling that conductor Robin Ticciati was trying to make the opera into something it’s not, or at least into something that I don’t want it to be—his conducting was all nineteenth-century tension and swoons and attempts to wring as much drama as you can possibly find in this chilly score. Textures were unvaried, his concentration seemed to be on the horizontal rather than vertical elements. Not to my taste, though the orchestra played well.

At the end we, of course, see ourselves in the form of modern operagoers visiting the onstage Organ Room, just like I did myself during intermission. It’s a nice touch but not a particularly original one (it recalls the ending of Herheim’s Serse, among many other productions), a fitting end to a production which seems woefully short on invention.

Sorry, guys! I wanted to do a comeback with something good but you write about what you get! I’m going to Aix-en-Provence next!

*This is also the story also of The Moderate Soprano, a play by David Hare currently playing on the West End (which I probably should have gone to see but did not). To be honest it doesn’t sound overly exciting.

Photos copyright Richard Hubert Smith.

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1 Comment

  1. So sad to hear that Herheim made something dull! Not always a fan but he’s certainly never done work I could qualify as dull. Funny as I think this Opera would do well set in space.

    Will you be seeing Ariadne in Aix, would love to read thoughts on Lise Lindstrom

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