Saturday, 16 July 2016

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (Aix-en-Provence, 2016)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2016

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Katie Mitchell, Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Laurent Naouri, Franz Josef Selig, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Chloé Briot, Thomas Dear

Opera Platform - 7th July 2016

It should come as no surprise that Katie Mitchell and Martin Crimp's vision for Pelléas et Mélisande is far removed from any setting in antiquity, but it is also substantially different from the rather more common abstract dream-world setting of most contemporary productions. The cross-over between dreams and reality nevertheless plays an important part in this production for the 2016 Aix-en-Provence festival.

There are no towers then, no fountain, no sea, no caverns or large rocks, few of the symbolist features that might appear to be critical to Maurice Maeterlinck's original drama. Adherence to these ethereal and symbolic elements does however tend to leave interpretation open-ended, and that is something that director Katie Mitchell and dramatist Martin Crimp seem to want to avoid. They have a very specific reading of Pelléas et Mélisande and, knowing Katie Mitchell's work, that is unsurprisingly a feminist reading, but it's also a convincing one that accounts for the nature and the quality of the piece: Mélisande is a woman in an unhappy marriage.

The opening scene seems to be critical to the establishment of this reading and the world it is going to take place in. Mélisande wanders into an empty bedroom in her wedding dress looking confused. In a scene that seems to encapsulate the past, the present and the future, Mélisande is lost and is "rescued" by Golaud (even though he is lost himself). Her first fearful words to him, when he appears, are pertinent - "Ne me touchez pas, ne me touchez pas!". Thereafter she becomes a victim of forces beyond her ability to control, her sense of identity lost in an unhappy marriage where she becomes nothing more than a pawn, a plaything with no choice or volition of her own.

This description of Mélisande's nature can be heard in the floating impressionistic music that Debussy fits so remarkably to Maeterlinck's play and it's emphasised here in the dreamlike quality of the first scene. The bedroom also doubles as a forest, the undergrowth creeping up the walls as past, present and future all come together, creating a mental prison where Mélisande is psychologically abused and broken down. The impression of being treated like a doll is emphasised during the musical interludes, where Mélisande is attended on by maids in an adjoining room who drop and lift her stiff lifeless body, dressing and undressing her for the next scene.

Lizzie Clachan's sets for Katie Mitchell's usual multi-level, multi-room stage designs are exquisite and well-suited to a work that floats imperceptibly and often without logic between scenes and locations. The mechanics of the scene changes are impressively realised, the box rooms magically slipping into place in an ever changing configuration that matches the mood of the setting even if it never conforms to the work's regular established locations of caverns and towers. The "Blind Man's Well", for example, where Mélisande drops her ring into the pool, is a disused room with a drained swimming pool where branches of trees have broken through its windows.

Such scenes - Mélisande blindly following Pélleas into the room - capture everything about the closed-off, decaying world of Allemonde as an expression of Mélisande's marriage and mental state. Symbolism is everything in Maeterlinck, and the symbolism adopted by Mitchell does everything it ought to do, and that is mainly to unsettle, or at least show an unsettled view of the world from Mélisande's perspective. This goes as far as Mélisande looking on at a double of herself with a distorted or psycho-realistic view of how Golaud treats her. "Je suis malade ici" doesn't just mean that she is wistfully melancholic, here her true state of mind is made apparent.

Which also means that the familiar connecting narrative thread of Pelléas et Mélisande becomes increasingly difficult to follow as the opera progresses. Like many of Mitchell's productions with multi-level parallel scenes (Written on Skin, AlcinaLucia di Lammermoor), there is often more going on and made explicit than needs to be. This results in a lot of comings and goings, scene changes, action taking place in multiple windows at the same time and often with doubles in different timelines.

Martin Crimp's dramatic argument also becomes harder to fathom the longer it goes on, taking increasingly strange dreamlike twists further away from the familiar narrative. Not content with Mélisande being a helpless figure torn between the projected desires and fears of Pelléas and Golaud, Arkel too gets in on the action here in one disturbing scene, and even Yniold is ambiguously sexualised and abused. The stone that is too heavy for him/her to lift has a very definite meaning here beyond the more abstract symbolism it usually carries. It's all a bit Pinteresque.

Despite it all - and notwithstanding the suggestion of a cop-out implication that "it was all a dream" - Mélisande still remains enigmatic, her true desires unknown or ambiguous, which is really how it should be. It makes characterisation difficult, but Barbara Hannigan's fine singing and expression (or lack of expression where appropriate) makes that very interesting to consider. The singing elsewhere in this luxuriously cast production also accounts for it being haunting and full of hidden menace. Stéphane Degout is an experienced Pelléas (reportedly his last time singing the role) and Laurent Naouri a fine Golaud, but viewed from Mélisande's perspective it's hard to really grasp their true nature here. Esa-Pekka Salonen gives us a gorgeous reading of Debussy's wondrous score.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Opera Platform