Je vois d’autres lumières.

The internal jukebox working in the way it does, I have for over 20 years been unable to hear any reference to Glyndebourne without Kit and the Widow popping into my head. They were a cabaret duo who were a permanent fixture at the Edinburgh Fringe and one of the mainstays of their repertoire was a song, set to a well-known operatic overture (I leave it to the cher public to work out which one) which contained the lines “We’re off to Glyndebourne/To see a rather boring opera by Rossini.” 

And, to be honest, that song was about as close as I ever thought I’d get. Glyndebourne is well represented in my CD and DVD collection— because who would be without Soderstrom’s Leonore, or Lott’s Anne Trulove, or Vaness’ Fiordligi?—but for a number of reasons a visit to the house was not something I thought would ever happen.

It’s not just that seats are expensive—although in the main they are, eye-wateringly so, even more so than Covent Garden—it was more what the place represented. A country house where one is gently encouraged to turn up in black tie, and where the interval is as long as the first half so that everyone can eat their picnics, did not appeal. Even though the place had been producing bold, eclectic, carefully cast work for as long as I’d been aware of it, I couldn’t get past my conviction that it was No Place for a Socialist.

So I was in a spiky mood when I boarded the bus service that ferries operagoers from Lewes Station to the house, about three miles away. I’d rebelled to the extent of wearing a suit rather than evening dress, figuring that if it was good enough to get married in it would be good enough for sitting watching a show. And yes, I am aware that the verb ‘to rebel’ has seen the previous sentence and gone on strike.

What I was expecting once I arrived was stiffness and formality. But although the house itself is undoubtedly very, very posh—a beautiful faux-Jacobethan vision which was surprisingly familiar from record sleeves, surrounded by lawns which would make a manicurist retire—the prevailing atmosphere front of house is relaxed and unpretentious.

Maybe it’s the open air: it was a showery day and it’s hard to be stuffy in drizzle. In fact, the front of house area, with its brickwork circling the auditorium, its long, built-in bar and the marquees and smaller buildings beyond, reminded me of nothing so much as Wimbledon, a similarity heightened by all the champagne and picnics knocking around. It’s lucky that opera’s Federer-alike, Peter Mattei, hasn’t sung at Glyndebourne for a bit. Things would get confusing.

So, I was disarmed and ready to see, as Kit and the Widow almost said, a rather boring opera by Debussy. Before the unrepentant Pelleassholes descend on me, blinking in the unfamiliar light as they brandish their scores, I should explain that I’ve borrowed the “B” word from the evening’s director, Stefan Herheim.

In a programme interview, Herheim says of the opera “It has its own rules and goes in its own directions. And yes, it’s a thin line between total fascination and absolute boredom. But you have to dare to walk that line, to elevate yourself with the work and see what comes.”

I’ve never found Pelléas et Mélisande boring per se, but I’ve certainly walked that line. It’s an elusive, allusive work which asks the viewer/listener to do more work than many operas. At times it feels like a tone poem, a series of symbols that keep shifting. Despite its typically operatic, love-triangle plot, it feels at times like an almost heroically untheatrical work.

Herheim productions, however, may be many things, but they’re always theatrical. While this one may not, in the last analysis, be entirely successful, it’s bursting at the seams with theatrical ideas. Many of those ideas are, like the opera itself, pretty opaque—but that, of course, adds to the theatricality, because trying to work out what’s going on keeps you engaged.

This is a production that recognizes the work’s need to make us think. I’ve seen productions of Pelléas that wash over you in a beautiful, sea-green silky haze, where you leave the theatre having experienced something between a trance and a joint. This one has you constantly unpacking what you see and hear.

That’s not always a fulfilling experience, of course. At times I felt as if I wanted to give my tired brain a rest and ease into something more red-blooded and visceral: at one point in Act 3 I would have been overjoyed if someone had wandered on and bellowed the Ballo duet at me.

But that concentration, if maintained, is rewarded. What Herheim’s production illustrates most successfully is that this is an opera obsessed with gaze (aren’t we all, homophonically?)  So much of the plot depends on what can or can’t be seen, what we choose to show of ourselves, what we choose to look at and what we turn away from, what is witnessed and confirmed and interpreted and misinterpreted.

Herheim’s characters cover their own or each other’s eyes with their hands at regular intervals throughout the evening. When Golaud comes across the lovers, their eyes weep blood. Yniold, eyes covered by his sexually abusive father’s hands, draws the scene of Pelléas and Mélisande (“just staring,” remember) from memory; and what the lovers see and describe to each other is more often than not visible to them only through the filter of artistic interpretation. Their first conversation, for example, isn’t about them watching a ship sail away, but discussing a triptych of nautical paintings.

From the production’s opening seconds we are reminded that we’re watching a piece of art: the setting is a wood-panelled room uncannily similar to Glyndebourne’s own Organ Room, except that this one still has its organ in situ and breaks apart to reveal a forest of organ pipes.

The physical structure of this world, then, is made out of music. But Glyndebourne isn’t just a place where art is made, it’s also home to a hugely privileged family, and Herheim’s production mirrors that duality. The costumes place us somewhere in the 30 year period between the composition of the opera and the building of the opera house. So these people aren’t mythical, medieval figures, they’re—for an audience watching in England—Downton and Forster and the Bloomsbury Group.

This familiarity, this set of resonances, felt useful in humanizing the characters. What can be an alienatingly symbolic work became something rooted far more in recognisable human interaction, even though there really isn’t much that can be done to make these people relatable.

Herheim again: ‘They display a certain distance—from each other and from themselves. They are unable to look beneath each others’ surface and so they project themselves on their surroundings… so sometimes you need to dare to take a step back. And if you do, you actually get closer to the core.”

The singer who profited most from this paradoxical approach—examining distance in order to expose the personal—was Christina Gansch as Mélisande . How refreshing, and how much more interesting, to see a lively, sometimes joyous, energetic and engaged Melisande, rather than the usual drooping alabaster waif.

Gansch never once resorted to “Mélisande face” (you can picture it, right? Wide downcast eyes, head tilted away, a coy languid sprite that would collapse into dust if anyone touched her) and gave us instead a young woman full of life but trapped by fear and expectation. She sang beautifully, especially in the gorgeous unaccompanied song at the top of Act 3.

Her Pelléas, John Chest, gave an equally polished vocal performance—he has just the right kind of voice for this music, which is my attempt to write the first ever review of this opera that doesn’t use the phrase “baryton-martin.”

A finalist in Cardiff last year and the husband of Parterre favorite Layla Claire, Chest was as committed to his character as Gansch was to hers, although it must be said that the production was less interested in him than it was in his opposite number or his antagonist; this Pelléas was ardent and impassioned and not much else, and his “20s artist” costuming made for some unfortunately foppish overtones at times.

Christopher Purves is one of those singers I’ve been vaguely aware of for years without ever actually taking much notice of, and that was dumb of me because he’s a strikingly talented actor with a multi-coloured and flexible voice. A Glyndebourne favourite, he managed to make Golaud almost sympathetic, perhaps because he was stronger in the moments of vulnerability than he was at the violent sexual sadist side of things.

“Luxury casting” is not a phrase I would usually call upon, since it’s always struck me as an oddly sycophantic thing to say about a professional doing a job, but really, with Brindley Sherratt as Arkel and Karen Cargill as Genevieve, what other phrase can one use? They’re both hugely experienced and it showed: there was really nothing one could criticize in their vocal or physical performances.

Cargill in particular sounded in wonderful nick, so much so that I can forgive her for not looking at her prop—Genevieve had apparently committed the letter to memory—and she served formidable contralto realness to such an extent that I, whose superpower is to be able to bring Suor Angelica into any conversation, would love to see her as the Zia Principessa.

Robin Ticciati in the pit was in total command and the orchestra murmured, seduced and swelled as appropriate. In an opera that can, in the wrong hands, feel one-paced, his command of dynamic variation was particularly strong.

And my god, that acoustic! I can’t believe nobody told me that sitting in the Glyndebourne auditorium is like hearing a carefully-engineered CD through thousand-quid speakers. In some houses you can sometimes hear the singers’ in-breaths: here, you can hear them lick their lips first.

To be honest, though, discussing the singers and the conducting is something of a reach, because I’ve never seen a production where the music-making was less important. The interval and post-show conversations would have been the same with a far less distinguished cast and orchestra, because they were about ideas.

At times Herheim lost me: I didn’t understand the significance of the flashforwards to Pelleas’ funeral, and the sudden appearance of a painting of Christ, complete with lamb on his shoulders and which evinced a mass covering-of-eyes by the entire household, caused a fair amount of tittering.

It’s not a production which is particularly concerned with storytelling, either. Without either a detailed knowledge of the work or a reliance on the supertitles it would often be a question of educated guesswork as to what might be happening in any given scene: relationships tended to be clearer than plot.

And while the staging—with the organ room walls constantly shifting and reforming to provide a constant sense of changing location—was visually arresting, practically speaking there was an almost obsessive concentration on mid-stage centre, which meant gaping dead space almost throughout.

(The MSC part of the stage contained the stage lift which delayed the start of the performance by twenty minutes owing to malfunctioning hydraulics; as the trap served variously as a sarcophagus, a table, the well in the forest where Mélisande is found, the grotto where her ring is lost and her sickbed, it’s hard to see how they could have worked round it, as we were told in a pre-curtain announcement was the plan. Luckily, the crew rebooted it in the nick of time.)

But if I wasn’t always convinced by Herheim’s storytelling or imagery, I was thrilled by the image with which he closed his story. As the opera drew to an end, the characters from Allemonde left the stage and after a moment of emptiness, people started to file into the organ room in modern evening wear, taking in the surroundings just as we had before the opera began.

Then, slowly, they turned to look at us. It’s hard to describe without it sounding cheesy, but trust me, it was electric. “Don’t touch me,” says Mélisande . “I’ve never looked you in the eyes,” says Pelléas. “Tell me what you can see,” says Golaud. Nobody is ever alone in this production: even Pelleas and Melisande’s farewell to each other is witnessed silently by the entire staff of the house.

And at the end, we’re reminded that we’re both complicit in this invasion of privacy and victims of it. “What are you doing here? Why are you looking at this?” asks the final image of the production, and we see them looking at us, and we are caught watching. We’ve witnessed things we shouldn’t have. We have seen and been seen.


Photos: Richard Hubert Smith