Did you know that there is an opera festival in Vicenza?  I did not, but the prospect of hearing Pelléas et Mélisande given by Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra was appealing; and at the Teatro Olimpico, one of the world’s most beautiful theatres. It seemed to be a brilliant idea – or was it? With its neo-classical architecture, early baroque music might have suited the venue better. But that was not all. The large orchestra was appropriately placed in the central performing area but so was a large forest, co-directors Fischer and Marco Gandini considering that forest is so pivotal to the work that the musical sound and the trees should operate in unison.

I remained unconvinced. Under Fischer’s inspired lead, the orchestra played Debussy’s marvellous score superbly and their contribution dominated the performance. That the sound came from among leaves and trees was of little significance, and when the singers had to clamber between the foliage, the latter was a cumbersome distraction. The dramatic action was indeed clearer and had a greater impact when it took place on platforms which were raised from the central area.

Fortunately, the performance had other positive dimensions. The cast was carefully chosen from singers highly experienced in this opera and it is hard to believe that a better team could have been assembled. Patricia Petibon was the outstanding Mélisande, totally submerging her own individuality to the delicate, mysterious and yet at times also passionate features created in Maeterlinck’s original. Bernard Richter’s bright tenor served well to communicate the essential normality in Pelléas’s character. As Golaud, Tassis Christoyannis was perhaps less frighteningly tyrannical than the text calls for, but this implied a not totally inappropriate degree of introspection in his makeup. There were excellent supporting performances from Nicholas Testé as Arkel and Yvonne Naef as Geneviève. Nor to be overlooked was Olivier Michael’s contribution as a sensitive, yet spirited little Yniold.

And the last word must be a tribute to Debussy’s ever enduring masterpiece. It will take a lot more than trees and leaves to spoil its impact.