Debussy to Scale

Byre Opera promises a fresh perspective on Pelleas and Melisande with brand new reduced orchestration and straight-talking translation, writes KEN WALTON  

On the face of it, music director Michael Downes and his Byre Opera team at St Andrews University seem to have set themselves an impossible challenge: to distill one of opera’s most psychologically intense libretti and musical scores down to chamber music dimensions, while also translating its mellifluous French narrative into plain English. 

Yet that’s exactly what they’ve done to Debussy’s symbolist opera Pelleas and Melisande, which the company performs this week in a reduced score specially created by composer Matthew Rooke and to a newly commissioned translation by novelist Janice Galloway. It’s a momentous occasion on several fronts. 

The production, directed by Kally Lloyd-Jones, marks Byre Opera’s first live production since 2019; it’s the first opera to be staged in the university’s new £14m Laidlaw Music Centre, and this new chamber version of Debussy’s landmark opera (first performed in its original form in 1902 with celebrated Aberdeen soprano Mary Garden as Melisande) is also the first ever re-scored version, permitted by its release from copyright in 2019, 70 years after the death of Maurice Maeterlinck, from whose play the libretto was shaped.

It was in a chance conversation in 2015 between Downes and Rooke in Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the latter was director of the border town’s Maltings Theatre, that Downes shared his wish to do a reduced Pelleas, and Rooke revealed that he had already started to make such an arrangement. 

‘We resolved then that we would stage the piece, though we could not have imagined it would take more than seven years to do so. Much of this delay, of course, has been due to Covid-19, which was for this project both immensely frustrating and highly productive, since it gave us the opportunity to test, refine and improve our new version in a way we could not otherwise have done,” Downes writes in an explanatory programme note. “The delay has also allowed us to present our Pelleas in the McPherson Recital Room, ensuring that our singers’ voices and Matthew’s orchestration are heard to best advantage.”

Also key to this production is Jonathan May, head of vocal studies at St Andrews and Byre Opera’s company manager, who has coached the student cast. The biggest challenge, he says, has been “the conversational nature of this piece”. “It’s like an escalator that just keeps moving. There’s very little structure. It’s a very challenging sound world to get used to, especially for such young voices.”

In that respect Rooke’s scaled-down orchestration has been advantageous. “If we accept that Debussy’s full score is like a wraparound blanket, this is more a cushion than a blanket,” May suggests. “But Matthew has done such an extraordinary job in maintaining richness in the texture, helped by the addition of a harmonium within the ensemble. As a result, the singers lose nothing in terms of instrumental support, but actually gain by not always having to cut through a big orchestra.”

Then there was Downes’ belief that the work should be presented in English, no easy task when the linguistic nuances between French and English are so fundamentally different. He approached Janice Galloway, a writer of proven musical sensitivity (she studied music at university, was librettist for Sally Beamish’s opera Monster, and in her novel Clara wrote a highly-acclaimed  fictionalised account of the life of Clara Schumann) whom he says “produced a libretto that is wonderfully fresh and contemporary without ever jarring with Debussy’s music.”

May, who is married to Galloway, offers some further insight. “Janice’s first reaction was ‘I can’t possibly do this, it’s not how I write’.” Persuaded to continue, however, he reckons the outcome actually adds to the power of an opera in which the characters, in French, rarely say what they mean. “Janice has succeeded in making the characters’ intentions clearer; they express more definite opinions, even if that has meant using the odd Scottish-ism to get the point across – at one point a character exclaims, ‘it hurted me’.”

Downes conducts three performances of Pelleas and Melisande this week (15, 17 & 19 June) with a cast consisting mainly of St Andrews students, joined by one outsider, baritone James Berry, who sings the role of Golaud. Sets are by the Scots-based theatre designer and filmmaker Janis Hart. Lucy Russell, lead violinist with the Fitzwilliam Quartet, heads up the 12-piece chamber ensemble.

Further information and tickets available at