At the heart of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande is a love story which, unlike others based around scandal, has stood the test of time. Falling in love with your husband's brother, or indeed your brother's wife, is still something which resonates - even for audience members with a modern world-view - as a contentious thing to do. (It seems not entirely accurate to suggest that an audience at Garsington Opera would have a modern world-view, but still.) For an opera, this is a luxury which Michael Boyd's evocative and darkly sumptuous production exploits; this is more than a period drama or historical representation. All elements of the production, from the versatile lighting design to the faded gold and turquoise interior of the jaded palace, feed into the overall effect still provided by Maeterlinck's original, semi-biographical narrative and the symbolist opera which Debussy sculpted around it. It is indeed effective as it is affecting.
Mélisande (the mystical woman found by the pond by Golaud, who later falls in love with Golaud's brother Pelléas) really carries the opera both musically and in terms of narrative, and Andrea Carroll's strong, sparkling performance did justice to the subtle mixture of mystery and vulnerability which the part embodies. Her clean, warm and rich vocal tone was a pleasure to listen to. Although all the singers were good, Paul Gay, who performed the part of Golaud, shone particularly, with his outstanding control and diction - I could understand every word he said. He also played his part with a nuanced understanding of jealousy and passion experienced by someone under the burden of expected masculinity. Furthermore, his interaction with the young William Davies (who played his son Yniold with impressive skill), where he used the young boy to spy on Pelléas and Mélisande, stood out as a prominent example of Boyd's excellent direction in the hands of two versatile and talented performers.
But going to see an opera at Garsington is not just about the opera itself; it is an overall experience. You arrive, you wander the extensive and exquisite grounds, you watch the opera and you dine in the interval. This is extravagance in the superlative; the cleanest, most beautiful clothes are worn, the most delicious champagne is drunk, the grass is the greenest and the sky the bluest. I felt I was in a dream, or a film. The beauty and grandeur of this experience and the faded beauty and grandeur of the world inhabited by Pelleas and Mélisande complement each other perfectly; there is an irony in the two sitting alongside one another, offering insight into the one's history and the other's likely fate. Garsington is at once undermined and completed by the very production which it has created.