Pelleas and Melisande

Laidlaw Music Centre, St Andrews

The first night of a radical revision of a crucial work in the operatic canon this may have been – and one involving a good number of less-than-experienced talents at that – but there was an impressive atmosphere of relaxed professionalism around Byre Opera’s chamber version of Claude Debussy’s masterpiece on Wednesday evening.

Partly that may be explained by the extended gestation period the production has enjoyed, first announced to follow the St Andrews music department’s off-site double bill at Guardbridge back in June 2019. The creators of this production, music director Michael Downes and stage director Kally Lloyd-Jones, have lived with Matthew Rooke’s inventive reduction of the score and Janice Galloway’s new translation of the libretto through the pandemic, and the university’s new Laidlaw Music Centre has been completed and thoroughly tested as a home for it since Byre Opera’s last show.

Lloyd-Jones and her designer Janis Hart make the fullest use of the venue in their black-and-gold staging. It emerges from the architecture of the McPherson Recital Room, the adaptable 13-piece band in the midst of the action and the auditorium and off-stage areas part of the sonic mix. With mirrored cubes and flying arches becoming pools, caves, beds, towers and windows, and the cast proving themselves adept stage managers and follow-spot operators as well as actors and singers, the production is stylish and splendidly lucid. Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist narrative has the clearest exposition, helped in no small measure by a healthy leavening of ironic wit in Galloway’s dialogues between the characters.

Soprano Rachel Munro, who was Nora in Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea in 2019, has a big sing as the supposedly silent Melisande, and is more than equal to the task, while her Pelleas, Sebastian Roberts, makes a remarkably assured step up from G&S to his first opera role. In the St Andrews way, these young people are students of mathematics and Classics, literature and languages, but their musical abilities are top quality. The cast’s sole professional singer is baritone James Berry, in the role of Golaud, whose conservatoire training (at RNCM) and experience in houses in England and Norway shows not just in his voice but in the authority he brings to the opera’s opening and the Act 4 scenes with Rebecca Black’s Yniold in particular.

The instrumentalists, led by Lucy Russell, first violin of the Laidlaw’s resident string quartet, the Fitzwilliam, have a very busy time of it, two of the violinists doubling on viola, and harpist Sharon Griffiths adding the timpani line to her part. Rooke’s arrangement also makes crucial use of Anne Page’s harmonium, and cuts nothing from the full score. It often sounds as if it might have come from the pen of the French composer himself, and seems very likely to find further productions.

Keith Bruce

Further performances June 17 and 19.

Picture: Rachel Munro as Melisande and James Berry as Golaud (by Viktoria Begg)