Brooding passion and unrequited love are the order of the day as Peter Brook returns to Glasgow with Impressions de Pelle’as. Mark Fisher ﬂew to Paris to talk to two of the operatic leads about working with the world’s greatest director.
ormidable." exclaims the middle-aged opera lover sitting next to me at the first curtain call at Les Bouffes du Norde. ‘Sen.s'-i-biI-ire’!‘ she spells out with a passion. And you thought they only said that kind of stuff in films.
Films and Peter Brook shows perhaps. We‘ve just watched a matinee performance of Impressions (1e Pelléas. a condensation of Claude Debussy’s Pelle’as et Mélisande. down from the full orchestral three hours to a leaner. fitter 90 minutes. It's a production made-to- measure for Brook‘s run-down theatre, hidden away alongside the market stalls and cheap bars of northern Paris. and one inspired by his commitment to straddling the gap between stuffy operatic convention and accessible modern theatre. Brook fans will recognise the ﬂat. floor-level stage. the spare. economical set and the elemental fixation with water — placed here in two down-stage pools catching the light and throwing dappled ripples across the worn walls. Opera fans may ﬁnd it harder to recognise the Debussy they thought they knew. . but will be thrilled by the stripped-down clarity ; of the adaptation they find.
Based on a play written a century ago by Maurice Maeterlinck. Debussy’s opera tells a simple tale of forbidden love. A mysterious stranger. Mélisande. is found lost and distracted in a forest by a prince. Golaud. so captivated by her enigmatic beauty that he promptly marries her. On returning home. Golaud cottons on that his new wife is becoming ever more close to his half-brother. Pelle’as. and a libretto that has started off dark and claustrophobic spirals down into a gloomy well of thwarted romance. It‘s a knife-edge tale of subtle emotion. both precise in its attention to detail and open-ended in the questions it asks. And in Brook‘s production it emerges dream-like. out of time. out of place. from its opening tableau of Victorian drawing room chumminess to the ordered symmetry of the set with its suggestion of Japanese gardens and comfortable living rooms. all the while entertaining the kind of deep. repressed emotions that stir only when we sleep.
First performed in 1902 with Scottish-born Mary Garden playing Me’lisande. the opera has been transformed by Brook and musical director Marius Constant into a chamber piece for two grand pianos and six voices. In this. the directors have aimed to return to Debussy’s early versions of the piece. which he developed for a whole decade before its concert debut. frequently entertaining friends with solo renditions. In dispensing with the full score. which the composer rushed out in three months before the first performance. the production tries to get to the mellow heart of this brooding work.
On the day I saw it. the lead roles were played
by American-born Thomas Randle (last seen here playing Ferrando in Scottish Opera’s C osi fan tune in 1990) and Japanese-born Kyoko Saito. They are heading one of three casts which Brook. with typical painstaking commitment. has directed individually to create. if not three completely different interpretations. then at least three distinct variations on a theme. ‘The other casts are very. very different to us.‘ says Saito. employed like the two other Me’lisandes to suggest an Oriental other-worldliness to a Western audience. ‘For example. today we played it for the first time with Vincent Le Texier playing Golaud. It was very fresh for me. He’s a very strong Golaud. It’s very interesting.’
The meticulous level of improvisation—based rehearsal that the company has undergone since
‘You’re working with a legend — there’s no other way to describe the guy - but we’ve come home after a few rehearsals scratching our heads and thinking, what was that all about?’
it came together last June has prepared it to cope with — indeed to thrive upon — such last- minute cast changes. ‘A lot of the improvisation we did in the early weeks. we hardly touched the score.’ says Randle. ‘We hardly ever talked about Pelle’as. we never sang. we just spoke the text most of the time. We really learned how to be sensitive to another person — what they were thinking, what they were feeling. what they were doing. and we would improvise. That kind of abstract early work was put in a real pragmatic vein this afternoon when Kyoko had to deal with a completely new singer. He threw her around a little bit. We had a little moment off stage where she was saying to me. ‘Oh my God! He‘s so strong! My wig's coming off!‘ But she was brilliant.‘
But work isn’t all plain sailing with Brook. As Yoshi Oida suggests in his book An Actor Adrift (Methuen. £9.99). the man they call Le Maitre can be an enigmatic director; certainly he’ll tell you ifyou’re going wrong. but he won‘t go out of his way to boost morale. ‘Kyoko and I talked about this a lot.’ says Randle. ‘You really feel like you’re on your own. You‘re working with a legend — there’s no other way to describe the guy — but we’ve come home after a few rehearsals scratching our heads and thinking. what was that all about? But again that’s part of it. He knows what he wants out of us. even if we don‘t know what he wants.
‘He never told us to do anything.’ he continues. ‘which is not the same as not giving directions. He‘ll say, OK I think this is a good time to move over here. but it’s not the same
' thing as me saying. I‘m going to gesture here. I grimace here. because he‘s told me to. It has to be organic. That is what he’s brought out of people. He has to rubber stamp everything. but nobody does anything because they were told to. It’s what makes any good producer. It's like when you hear a good composer or see a great film or a work of art or read a great novel. The artist remains anonymous if that work is to be appreciated by a wider range of people. You always know a Brook show. but you can't put your finger on one single element and say. ah yes this is Peter Brook. There’s no one thing that makes it so. but you step back and you see the larger canvas.‘
And the larger canvas this time round. on Brook’s fourth visit to Glasgow‘s Tramway. is a sensitive. at times achingly beautiful revitalisation of a standard work that fulfils Brook‘s dictum that ‘the only way to treat a classic with respect is to stage it disrespectfully‘. ‘lt‘s what‘s nice about the production. but it‘s also what‘s nice about the piece.‘ says Randle. 'lt‘s not in-your-face opera. Here are very real. very concrete. violent. passionate. romantic relationships between people. and yet in the end you leave the theatre and you think. what would I have done. what did he mean. and that’s the best thing about it. You've got the real tactile imagery and you’ve got the questions.’
I 17.. ."r,'_ I ; ' , . Impressions (1e Pelle'as, Tramway, Glasgow, Tue 23—Sat 2 7 Feb.
Many thanks to Campus Travel for providing a
ﬂight to Paris ( phone bookings 03 I 668 3303).
_ a... . _ _ The List l2—25 February 1993 13