Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande begins with a troubling mystery, and ends in near-total despair. That it’s bearable at all is down to the shifting, iridescent beauty of Debussy’s music – and that depends for its very life on performances of absolute insight and sensitivity.
That, miraculously, is what it received from the whole company of David Pountney’s new staging for Welsh National Opera. From Rebecca Bottone’s wide-eyed Yniold to the tender solemnity of Scott Wilde’s singing as Arkel every part of this production – musically, at least – added up, carried forward on a luminous, silken tide of orchestral sound from conductor Lothar Koenigs and a WNO orchestra that sounded as if it was in love.
And at the centre was a love-triangle of compelling power: Jacques Imbrailo was an ardent Pelléas whose honeyed voice broke with passion as he luxuriated in Mélisande’s hair. Jurgita Adamonyté’s Mélisande had an otherworldly, sensuous presence, temptress as much as innocent. And Christopher Purves was as devastating a Golaud as he was a Wozzeck; his voice curdling and darkening as jealousy slowly kills his character from the inside.
To be fair, that was of a piece with Pountney’s grand guignol vision of the opera as a sort of sequel to WNO’s 2013 Lulu – even to the extent of recycling Johan Engels’ brutal steel-framework of a set. Point taken, but with performers of such subtlety, it was surely unnecessary to have a gigantic skull grinning down on the action, or Pelléas and Mélisande grinding in each other's laps immediately after their long-delayed declaration of love.
Elements of Pountney’s vison worked magically: the shimmering pools of water, for example, throwing flickering light onto set and audience alike. But elsewhere, Pountney’s tendency towards cartoonish over-emphasis made it feel as if he was participating in a different production from the rest of the company. Pelléas et Mélisande should leave you feeling conflicted - but not for that reason.