I've made no secret of the fact that I am a huge fan of ETO and of their Artistic Director James Conway. Conway’s greatest contribution over the years has been to push boundaries and to boldly go where other more illustrious companies dare not. The net result has been that this small professional company regularly punches above its weight and has become highly respected by the cognoscenti.
The trouble with taking risks is that you will occasionally fail. ETO has had a few turkeys over the years and I am sad to report that Pelleas et Mélisande is basted and oven-ready. I have been lucky enough to see the great Pierre Boulez conduct this work twice. The first time at Covent Garden with Josef Svoboda's ground-breaking designs and Anne Howells and Thomas Allen in the eponymous roles; the second time was Peter Stein’s production with a set which creaked and rattled much as the set at the Opera-Comique reportedly did at the premiere in 1902. Both productions hinged on outstanding design to create the stultified and claustrophobic mood of Maeterlinck’s text. Svoboda used light and back-projection to create a psychedelic drug-infused atmosphere typical of the late sixties. Stein used a fiendishly complicated set in traditional style. And, although often criticized for it, Boulez conducted Debussy in Wagnerian style which celebrated the lushness of the orchestral colours and harmonies.
Now unfortunately this ETO production has a set that eschews any kind of design statement and the orchestra plays a pared down version of the score by Annelies Van Parys. The design concept is totally neutral. Conway seems to be saying: “You do the work – use your imagination.” This simply won’t do. The orchestra plays one-to-a-part and their reading of the score under Jonathan Berman is faultless. But this emphatically is not the sound that Debussy imagined and created. I guess what I am saying is that this is one opera that will not submit to the chamberisation (if there is such a word), and although the three leads (Jonathan McGovern as Pelleas, Susanna Hurrell as Mélisande, and Stephen Loges as Golaud) acquit themselves admirably, with little or no clue as to where the Director wants to go with this production, they are left to flounder.