Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande
Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017
Alain Altinoglu, Marco Arturo Marelli, Adrian Eröd, Olga Bezsmertna, Simon Keenlyside, Franz-Josef Selig, Bernarda Fink, Maria Nazarova, Marcus Pelz
Wiener Staatsoper Live - 30 June 2017
Debussy's only completed opera Pelléas et Mélisande remains a one-of-a-kind opera that doesn't conform to the traditional format, and as such a production can't really be judged on the more familiar critical basis of interpretation and performance. Fidelity to the dramatic events is determined by the fact that Maurice Maeterlinck's play is incorporated wholly within the opera, but it's the mood determined by Claude Debussy's musical setting of it that is perhaps the most important consideration for a production to meet. Somehow, none of these unique requirements ever makes Pelléas et Mélisande any less intriguing a work, since even within the very specific requirements of the setting of the work, there is room for perhaps one or two little adjustments of emphasis and interpretation.
Within this work, a few minor adjustments can go a long way, and that's certainly the case with Marco Arturo Marelli's new production of Pelléas et Mélisande for the Vienna State Opera. Even more so than most productions of the work, the mood here is dominated almost entirely by the stage sets which emphasise the forbidding presence of the castle in Allemonde. We never seem to leave it, we never get a glimpse of anything natural outside the castle, not a hint of daylight, not even a garden with a fountain or an exterior Blind Man's Well. All of these, including Pelléas and Golaud's excursion to the caverns, all seem to take place within the walls of the castle in this production.
Bathed in monochrome shades of purple light, the emphasis on the location heightens the dark mood of the piece. The castle itself is a sinister Max Ernst-like rough-hewn tall grey block structure, decaying and slightly tilted, ready to tip into the stagnant waters that lie in its vaults. The atmosphere accordingly is dark and oppressive; the inhabitants all old, sick and dying or else subject to strange forces and accidents. We know this because Golaud and Arkel describe it as such, acknowledging how out of place Mélisande presence is there, but you really get an enhanced sense of it here.
In another adjustment of emphasis in this regard, the first scene of Marelli's production, just before he hears the sobs of a young woman, shows Golaud unable to go on not just because he is lost in the forest, but he about to shoot himself in the head with the gun placed under his jaw. Just to jump ahead of the chronology, since there is a kind of consistent rhythm (of music and language) and even a kind of circular symmetry to the opera, this is not just a throw-away image, but one which is returned to in the closing notes of the opera as Mélisande slips away and Golaud is left with his own demons once again and his gun.
Debussy certainly wasn't composing an opera for singers to demonstrate their prowess, but the casting of roles can evidently also adjust the emphasis and mood of Pelléas et Mélisande. If you put a singer, actor and performer like Simon Keenlyside into a role like Golaud, that character is going to feature strongly, and Golaud can often be the dominant figure in the work. Whether you take the castle as an outward expression of Golaud's moods, authority and dominance, or whether it's the castle that exerts its dark influence over his moods, the two are inextricably linked. Golaud wants to control and understand but is obdurate in his mindset, and it's his actions and the force of them that are the main cause of Mélisande's deep unhappiness which leads to the tragedy of what occurs between her and Pelléas.
Although they are more reserved in their expression, Pelléas and Mélisande are also subject to their own powerful forces and drives which are a reaction to their circumstances, and the Romantic desire to escape from them. Marelli extends that beyond the castle/Golaud darkness for both figures in a way that doesn't rely so much on the more traditional symbolism of the piece, although Pelléas's obsession with Mélisande's hair is still important here. We also see however the dying father of Pelléas in a silent role (who I've never really been aware of before), seemingly called Arzt. His role is never entirely clear or explored but it adds another element or layer of mystery on top of the drama. For Mélisande, her condition is associated with a boat.
You can't play around too much with the symbolism of Pelléas et Mélisande (and you don't really want to be explicitly interpreting it either), but the boat does manage to successfully become the dominant theme of the production. The upturned boat on a bench for repairs (decaying like everything else) is the tower from which Mélisande drapes her hair to Pelléas below. The boat is used as a ladder for Yniold to spy upon the couple, and it becomes the rock that Yniold cannot move. As such the boat comes to be a symbol of the essence of Mélisande, her desire, her freedom, an object that reflects her status as something that lies outside and apart from the rest of the citizens of the castle and Allemonde. It also becomes her 'bed' in Act V and eventually transports her into the sunset (still standing) at the conclusion.
The boat also of course ties Mélisande to another important symbol in the opera and that is the imagery of water. Here the freedom of boat and the water have a lot more resting on it, since Mélisande is already visibly pregnant at the start of Act IV. Water is present throughout on the stage and is given a darker context beyond the familiar symbolism of hidden depths holding unreachable objects. It's also a path of life, sometimes seen stagnating in the dark, at other times, offering the idea of movement and freedom - as in the beautiful sequence in Act 2 Scene 3, where Mélisande drifts into the scene guided by a semi-submerged Pelléas. Mélisande eventually leaves the castle in the boat, guided by the women servants, into a blazing red sunlight, leaving the dark creatures of Allemonde behind.
It's not all doom and gloom then, and you ought to be able to detect a hint of hope, if not quite optimism, in Debussy's concluding notes and perhaps even in Maeterlinck's words, as Arkel looks to Mélisande's child for the future in a place that - as it currently stands and has been repeatedly emphasised - is no place for children. Tapping into this moment of hope, or at least endurance, Marelli chooses to show Golaud's suicidal despair stayed by the hand of young Yniold, who also has a generally larger silent part to play elsewhere in this production and is characterised as such with expressive personality by Maria Nazarova.
The mood and tone are perfectly judged by Alain Altinoglu's conducting of the Vienna orchestra. The music is haunting and mesmerising as only this work can be, but Altinoglu's attention to the detail and flow demonstrate how Debussy's score really has a force of its own and is never mere accompaniment or mood music. Simon Keenlyside makes his presence fully felt as Golaud, Franz-Josef Selig is a luxury Arkel, his French enunciation beautifully clear and wonderfully phrased. Adrian Eröd plays Pelléas with enraptured romanticism and his voice is well pitched to sing it as such. If Mélisande remains somewhat distant and enigmatic, that's as it should be and Olga Bezsmertna's singing and performance conveys this perfectly.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live