Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande
Aalta-Musiktheater, Essen - 2012
Stefan Soltesz, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Jacques Imbrailo, Michaela Selinger, Vincent Le Texier, Doris Soffel, Wolfgang Schöne, Dominik Eberle, Mateusz Kabala
Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray
You don't want too much to be concrete and literal in the strange indefinable world of Allemonde that Debussy and Maeterlinck evoke so enigmatically in Pelléas et Mélisande. It should be semi-abstract, impressionistic and symbolic, light and floating, fleeting and shifting, a sequence of connected scenes where not everything is expressed or understood and nothing quite adds up. Like an iceberg - and this work can often appear cold and remote - there's considerably more to Pelléas et Mélisande than is visible above the surface.
This 2012 Essen production of Debussy's only completed opera is in the hands of a director who works well in this medium of connecting the semi-abstract to an underpinning realism. You can't have the characters float around aimlessly like ciphers (even if Robert Wilson has successfully proved otherwise), but you need to recognise that there are passions here as deep as the wells in Allemonde that the characters keep dropping precious objects into. Nikolaus Lehnhoff is particularly successful here in Pelléas et Mélisande in how he ties that altered state of reality not to the two characters who give the work its name, but to the figure whose nature and actions arguably have a more significant impact on the tone and the direction events take - Golaud.
The establishment of a suitable environment for Allemonde is critical also, and that's central to Lehnhoff's concept. The castle where one never sees the skies, the caverns and the wells all evoke a specific atmosphere of oppressiveness, of stagnancy, age and decay that is often commented on by the characters, and is certainly evoked in Debussy's haunting score. Raimund Bauer's sets bring all this together into a boxed structure that is classical and symmetrical in a way that imposes a sense of order and consistency, but is reconfigured slightly from scene to scene to reveal wells, towers and chinks of light that open and close around the characters. Most significantly, in this respect, there is a diamond-shaped panel of coloured light that changes according to the mood of the scene and the characters within it. The lighting fades enigmatically to blue in the musical interludes between the scenes to great effect.
There's considerable attention paid to those subtle changes and the emotional undercurrents that are expressed in the score. I don't think I've never seen a production of Pelléas et Mélisande that adheres to and matches the moods and rhythms so well. Much of the personalities of the characters in the work however is also conveyed in the very timbre of voice and the expression and weight given to the parlando expression of the singing. Jacques Imbrailo's Pelléas is therefore lyrical but conflicted, driven by strange urges and entranced by Mélisande's hair, passions that the world of Allemonde is unused to. As Mélisande Michaela Selinger personifies this complicated bearer of dangerous beauty, delicate and sensitive, yet confused and exasperated with her condition - the victim (or catalyst) of an unknown trauma in the past doomed to perhaps repeat them.
It's Golaud however and the tormented state of his mind filled with suspicion and fearful of betrayal, who asserts the most influence over how events are seen and is the direct agent of the tragedy that ensues. He's particularly sensitive to disturbances in the world of Allemonde - over-sensitive even. And yet in this production, as directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff and performed superbly by Vincent Le Texier, you can also sympathise with his Golaud. He is the injured party, he is tormented and to be pitied. I've seen Vincent Le Texier sing this role before, but never so soulfully and never so sensitive to the rhythms of the music that seem to be opening up his soul every time he speaks. He's the dark heart of this Pelléas et Mélisande, the personification of the Allemonde whose sense of order and solidity is broken down by the presence of Mélisande.
There is undoubtedly an element of haunting detachment to Pelléas et Mélisande, but this production still comes across as a little bit cold. There should perhaps be a better balance between the warmth of the score and the singing and the coolness of the production, but that perhaps doesn't work as well on the screen as it might have in the theatre. A gauze screen at the front of the stage softens and diffuses the light, so the clarity you might expect to see in a High-Definition recording is reduced to indistinct softness and haziness. The musical performance under Stefan Soltesz is as beautiful as you would expect, but it doesn't have a fullness of presence in the audio mixes either.
The Blu-ray has optional subtitles in French, German, English, Spanish, Italian and Korean. These can only be selected during play through the remote or the pop-up menu. There are however fixed titles on the screen in English in the musical interludes between scenes that give a synopsis of the next scene like a strange foretelling of events. Other than a couple of trailers there are no extra features on the production, but the director provides some thoughts in the enclosed booklet, and Debussy's own description of how he came to write Pelléas et Mélisande is also included. The disc is all-region.