Review: An Operatic Locavore Consumes the English Countryside

Christina Gansch (Mélisande) and Christopher Purves (Golaud) in Stefan Herheim’s new production of “Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Glyndebourne festival in Britain.

LEWES, England — Stefan Herheim sets his new production of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” which opened at the Glyndebourne festival on Saturday and runs through Aug. 8, in a location startlingly close by: a room in the countryside manor house here where the festival takes place.

But this won’t surprise those who have followed, and admired, this Norwegian director’s career. After all, when he did Verdi’s “Les Vêpres Siciliennes,” which had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1855, he placed it at the Paris Opera in 1855. An influential “Parsifal” he made for the Bayreuth Festival in Germany began in — you guessed it — the Bayreuth, Germany, of Wagner’s era.

In these stagings and others, Mr. Herheim acts as an operatic locavore: cooking with what he finds around him, blending the stories of the works at hand with the history and atmosphere of the places in which his audiences consume them.

The results can be heady and dense. Mr. Herheim takes complex operas and renders them more so; “Pelléas,” the enigmatic tale of a love triangle among members of an obscurely melancholy, aristocratic family, is no exception. In Mr. Herheim’s quiet, poetic, suggestive, ultimately rather wispy staging — which he also moves from the libretto’s Middle Ages to around the time the festival was founded in the 1930s — he doesn’t provide a decoder ring for Debussy’s sea of symbols. He greets an opera of unmatched ambiguity with a web of associations.

What about Glyndebourne fired Mr. Herheim’s imagination? (He has said that he initially planned to stage “Pelléas” here on a space station after the end of the world.) And why has he chosen to set the piece in a magically expanding and contracting version of the estate’s Organ Room, which audience members can walk through just a few steps from the opera house?

Perhaps Mr. Herheim was reminded of Glyndebourne by the opera’s tangled cast of relatives: Three generations of a family are represented, though it remains unclear precisely how everyone is connected. As it happens, three generations of the Christie family have run the festival; John Christie began seriously presenting opera here after marrying a much younger soprano from Canada who appeared in an amateur production at the estate.

Under Mr. Herheim’s influence, you can’t help but connect that founding couple to Golaud, the prince who, at the start of Debussy’s opera, discovers the much younger Mélisande, a lost foreigner; brings her back to his ancestral castle; and marries her. And it can’t have escaped this director’s notice, in dealing with an opera defined by repetitions echoing through families, that Gus Christie, John’s grandson and Glyndebourne’s current executive chairman, is married to an Australian-American soprano he met when she sang at the festival.

As for the set, designed by Philipp Fürhofer: Before founding the festival, John Christie acquired an organ-building firm, which made a huge and handsome instrument for Glyndebourne’s Organ Room in the 1920s. It now stands silent, the pipes having been donated to various churches as part of their rebuilding efforts after World War II.

Family traditions; an insular world; romances with outsiders; yawning differences of age; music and silence; the vague and persistent specter of violent conflict. Mr. Herheim’s “Pelléas” gently riffs on these facets of the opera in his cleanly acted, dreamily slow-moving staging.

Painting is a recurring motif, with artworks, palettes and empty easels popping up. This works to emphasize how the opera’s characters tend to imagine and, indeed, create — rather than strictly observe — the scenes around them; in Mr. Herheim’s staging, as people describe what they’re seeing, they often avert their own eyes and cover the eyes of others. (This is appropriate in a work in which a central location is known as “the fountain of the blind.”)

Mr. Herheim says in an interview in the program book that his production seeks to capture the moment when the festival was “heading into a drastic new age.” But while John Chest’s ardent Pelléas and Christina Gansch’s refined Mélisande do seem significantly younger than Christopher Purves’s sturdy, ferocious Golaud, the staging fails to evoke any real tension between old and new.

It’s true that as Arkel, the family patriarch (acted on Saturday by an ill Brindley Sherratt, and sung from the side of the stage by the robust Richard Wiegold), thunderously declares that Mélisande will “open the door on the new era I foresee,” an actor dressed as Jesus Christ appears up in the organ loft, a lamb slung over his shoulders. It’s a striking image that comes to make more sense when, in the next scene, the innocent young boy Yniold hears sheep being guided to their slaughter. And when Golaud, bleeding from his forehead, claims he scratched himself on a thorn, it felt like a newly profound nod to Jesus’s crown of thorns.

I wish there had been more strange yet evocative coups of this sort in Mr. Herheim’s polished-looking, well-executed, not-quite-persuasive production. His constellation of associations — Glyndebourne’s history, the interplay of the visual and sonic arts, the whisper of war — doesn’t quite come together. No “Pelléas” should be expected entirely to cohere, and I admire Mr. Herheim’s confidence in layering mystery atop mystery. The trouble isn’t just that his work here is confusing; it’s scattered and wan. (Never wan, though, is Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s lush, often lurid performance of the score.)

At the very end, the family’s servants re-enter the Organ Room, now dressed as 21st-century operagoers in evening wear: representatives, that is, of the black-tie, picnicking audience watching in the theater. If the identification wasn’t already more than clear, they look out at us as the final notes softly sound.

It’s a bit too cute of an idea, and caps a staging that is not Mr. Herheim’s conceptually tightest, nor the most riveting. But it is yet another of his welcome reminders that the operas we love were created at particular moments — and now exist as volatile combinations of that ever-receding time and place, and ours.

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