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Pelleas et Melisande review at Garsington Opera, Wormsley – ‘beautiful and devastating’

Andrea Carroll in Pelleas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera. Photo: Tristram Kenton Andrea Carroll in Pelleas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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This season Garsington launches a collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra, which plays in the pit for the first time under Dutch conductor Jac van Steen.

Their interpretation of Pelleas et Melisande conveys a wonderful range of tonal colours, while its dramatic flow is unstoppable. Rarely has this extraordinary score revealed such exquisite beauty and yet equally hit home with such devastating power.

Following his significant success at Garsington last year with Eugene Onegin, director Michael Boyd demonstrates similar command with Debussy’s symbolist masterpiece. In a work in which many questions are asked but few answered, he preserves the essential mystery of the piece whilst maintaining a clear narrative line.

Lit with considerable imaginative skill by Malcolm Rippeth, Tom Piper’s single set is inspired by the decayed magnificence of disused theatres in Detroit, whose distressed grandeur matches the work’s fin de siècle atmosphere perfectly.

The central performances are admirable. American soprano Andrea Carroll voices her enigmatic Melisande with gently luminous tone and is sensitively partnered by Jonathan McGovern’s eager, lucidly sung Pelleas – cast here as a baritone: unusually, a tenor is also possible – and some would say preferable – in the role. But together they suggest a relationship where two young people fall in love without either of them realising it.

Drawing on the harsher hues of his striking bass-baritone, Paul Gay explores the inner darkness of Pelleas’ jealous half-brother Golaud in a performance whose final stages are painful to witness.

Brian Bannatyne-Scott unites dignity and concern as Arkel, while Susan Bickley turns Genevieve’s rare appearances into highlights. Treble William Davies gives a moving account of Golaud’s young son, Yniold – caught up in a complex of relationships he cannot understand – while Dingle Yandell stands out in the small role of the Doctor, making out of it something memorable.

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Michael Boyd’s beautiful and devastating collaboration with conductor Jac van Steen