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Pelleas et Melisande review at the Britten Theatre – ‘focused staging’

Susanna Hurrell and Jonathan McGovern in ETO's Pelleas et Melisande at the Britten Theatre. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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English Touring Opera sets off on its autumn tour, during which it takes three masterpieces of late 19th-century French repertoire to nine venues around England. The first is a reduced version of Debussy’s only completed opera, based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play.

The reduction is the work of the Belgian composer Annalies Van Parys, scored for 13 players. Jonathan Berman conducts with a palpable sense of momentum without being entirely successful in solving those problems of balance that the new scoring throws up, yet the distinctive musical character of the piece registers strongly.

There are cuts. The secondary characters and the chorus disappear, while the interval comes in an odd place. Director James Conway also decides to reinstate in spoken form a sung section dropped by Van Parys. All of these choices are debatable, though the overall trajectory of this intimate and mysterious tragedy remains intact.

Conway directs with expertise: even with its multiple ambiguities, the narrative maintains focus and the characterisations conviction. Oliver Townsend’s unit set – not much more than a box and a few spotlights, plus a second, recessed inner space and some atmospheric wallpaper – supplies a spare but effective frame.

Vocal and acting values are uniformly high, even if soprano Lauren Zolezzi is not really a natural exponent of the male child Yniold. Often effectively sung by a tenor to offer greater contrast with his very different baritone half-brother Golaud, the role of Pelleas is delivered with subtlety in Jonathan McGovern’s light baritone, while Golaud is represented by the darker bass-baritone tones of Stephan Loges, who suggests with unerring skill a man disintegrating through steadily increasing frustration and insecurity.

The flawless surface of Susanna Hurrell’s fresh soprano helps her outline a near-ideal Melisande. Michael Druiett is a consistently imposing Arkel, while Helen Johnson maximises the impact of Genevieve’s famous letter-reading scene.

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James Conway’s focused staging of a reduced version of Debussy’s masterpiece provides an effective launch for ETO’s autumn tour