Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff May 29 2015
Music by Claude Debussy
Libretto by the composer based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck
Director: David Pountney
Conductor: Lothar Koenigs
Set Design: Johan Engels
Costume Design: Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Design: Mark Jonathan
Pelléas: Jacques Imbrailo
Mélisande: Jurgita Adamonytė
Golaud: Christopher Purves
Arkel: Scott Wilde
Geneviève: Leah-Marian Jones
Yniold: Rebecca Bottone
‘I desired for music a freedom which belongs to that art more than to any other – music being founded not upon mere imitation of nature, but upon mysterious relations between nature and imagination.’
Debussy, in a note entitled Why I Wrote ‘Pelléas’
In his only completed opera, Debussy does not merely set Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande to music, he dives beneath the surface of the play to create an incandescent, darkly shimmering poetic world. His piece is an intricate tapestry of allusions; an exquisite mirage which speaks to our deepest, most refined sensibilities. Characters are not so much drawn as dreamt, while action and verbal discourse become vehicles for ravishing suggestion rather than statement. It is a work of profound psychological discernment, and the unfolded tragedy aches with the most sublime sorrow ever depicted on an operatic stage.
Maeterlinck and Debussy were both quietly radical innovators; indeed the playwright was once credited by Rainer Maria Rilke as having ‘shifted theatre’s centre of gravity’ towards a new type of static ‘drama of the unexpressed’. Debussy’s influence has, of course, proved greater still and more enduring in musical terms, whilst Pelléas remains a landmark operatic achievement; liberating and disquieting in equal measure. David Pountney’s new production for Welsh National Opera grasps both of these aspects with brilliant success, drawing upon thrillingly good actor-singers and with magnificent, subtle sonority from the WNO Orchestra under music director Lothar Koenigs.
Presenting the opera under the season theme ‘a terrible innocence’, Pountney explores fascinating parallels between Debussy’s elusive heroine and Berg’s equally mysterious – and equally deadly – Lulu. The staging is based on his award-winning 2013 production of Berg’s unfinished opera of that name, designed by the late Johan Engels, and which allows for the sensitive, intelligent location of the Debussy within a still wider cultural frame. The spirit of Edgar Allan Poe looms large in Engel’s cage-like metal ‘castle’, as he did for Debussy throughout his creative life, and for his symbolist literary contemporaries. Just as in the composer’s unfinished The Fall of the House of Usher, the castle glowers and weeps with its inhabitants’ tears; in this production of Pelléas, the lattice forms a rib-cage for a giant skeleton-cum-spiral staircase sitting atop a pool of water. Each of the spectre/castle’s various guises foreshadows death, whether as battlement, cliff top above a murky, subterranean cave, or as Mélisande’s bedchamber tower.
Within an atmosphere of timeless decay, a succession of wonderfully lit, smoothly descending backdrops lend a sense of narrative passage from scene to scene. Together with Mark Jonathan’s sophisticated stage lighting, reflecting watery ripples into the auditorium, they help to point up the many thematic dualities of the piece. These Debussy doesn’t so much juxtapose as blur together or oscillate continually back and forth: night and day; dark and light; youth and age; health and disease; the ‘opposite’ keys of C-major and F-sharp-major. And the medievalism of the pre-Raphaelites, too, finds its way into the black, hanging chains and into Marie Jeanne-Lecca’s strikingly evocative costumes.
This is the realm of the Allemande – meaning ‘all the world’ – and perhaps of the Allemagne too; the French name for Germany. After all, the stretch would hardly be too far with Wagner an inescapable, no-longer-benign presence for Debussy during the years he composed this score (1893-1902). It is not just the erotic love-death of Tristan und Isolde that is echoed, nor the ailing realms of Parsifal. A horned Wanderer appears at the start, delivering Mélisande to the forest in an amniotic sac. Are there hints of Valkyrie in her metal headgear, or of the river Rhein in those perilously dark, enchanted waters? Or perhaps of a familiar Teutonic magic in Mélisande’s careless toss of Golaud’s ring into the well, causing her far-away husband to be thrown from his horse?
Prince Golaud – performed with chilling, eruptive violence and dark-hued tenderness by the exceptional Christopher Purves – first discovers Mélisande wandering near a forest pool whilst similarly out hunting for deer. Her famous first utterance is a warning: ‘Don’t touch me, don’t touch me!’ But of course Golaud is already lost, and the danger he sees is not to himself, rather to her; apparently traumatised, vulnerable and alone – with mezzo-soprano Jurgita Adamonytė bringing a beautifully sung, duplicitous and enigmatic physicality to the role. Taking her home as his wife, Golaud rolls the die for his own destruction and that of his bewildered half-brother, Pelléas; perfectly cast in the passionately liquid, high baritone of Jacques Imbrailo. Of course, Pelléas falls for Mélisande – as does every person of royal lineage in Pountney’s production, who chafe with suppressed desires á la Lulu. Young and old, male and female, they each fester in a dank malaise they wrongly believe this alluring new blood can dispel.
Water is everywhere; not as a symbol of purity, but of sickness and stagnation after a drought brings famine across the land. The characters constantly refer to crying and unhappiness, and a flow of silent, black-robed maidservants and peasant women of the living dead refer us inexorably to the story of Bluebeard and his wives; a tale to which so many writers and composers were drawn in the early 20th century, and which finds its reflection here in the claustrophobic anguish of Golaud over his second wife. Some Pelléas commentators have speculated that Mélisande is, in fact, an eighth wife of Bluebeard’s, come straight from that tragedy to the place in the forest where Golaud stumbles upon her.* But in any case, the resonance of Debussy’s opera with the folktale (best known from the 1697 version by Charles Perrault) is compelling, and saturates Pountney’s production with quiet, sepulchral horror.
There is no question, here, that Mélisande is of supernatural origin, and that she will use whatever powers she can to wreak havoc; an intent which finds its apotheosis in one of the most erotic scenes in all opera. Pelléas may eventually die by Golaud’s hand but it is Mélisande’s hair that drowns him, as her long tresses fall from her tower, Rapunzel-like, to cascade over him below. With brilliant acuity, in an unforgettable scene, Pountney unfolds the encounter like a dream or act of psychic manipulation. As Mélisande writhes in ecstasy above, three women enter and drape the seated Pelléas with their beautiful hair – blonde, red, brunette – driving him to distraction, and Golaud – who witnesses the scene as if ‘real’ – to jealous fury (perhaps these are indeed members of a ‘Bluebeard’ harem).
The desires and violence latent in the first half of the opera are manifested with palpable brutality in the second, as the castle ‘rib-cage’ now opens to expose the savage heart of the inhabitants’ afflictions. Pountney sweeps aside ridiculous, ongoing operatic taboos to depict Mélisande as Maeterlinck/Debussy wrote her: not just a being of magnetic sexuality but, by this stage of the tale, heavily pregnant. Contrary to her continually echoed plea/invitation ‘Don’t touch me!’, clearly, somebody has – and not necessarily her husband.
Here we see Mélisande – who was first robed in bloodied white, then ‘pure’ white and is now entirely in red – cavorting with the elderly King Arkel, her father-in-law (commandingly portrayed by Scott Wilde). This conquest adds to her flirtation with Geneviève (a beautifully poised Leah-Marian Jones) and some highly suggestive play with Yniold, Golaud’s child by his first wife (Rebecca Bottone rising with courage to the challenges of this put-upon role, often performed by a boy soprano).
In the scene in which Yniold loses his golden ball – a scene of effete pastoralism which Pountney manages to make threatening rather than simply bizarre as it often seems – Mélisande is the human rock under which the ball rolls; curled up on the ground like some immoveable creature or elemental force, transmuted into womanish form. And like a curse, at the end of the opera, Pountney injects yet another twist into his breathtaking feat of imagination:
In an emotionally wrenching scene, Pelléas has been murdered by his distraught ‘innocently guilty’ half-brother, and Mélisande has subsequently given birth to an infant daughter of uncertain paternity. The mother now appears to die – for no good reason as far as we can see – only to have those Bluebeard wives come and collect her into their midst. As they silently walk away, the baby turns shockingly to dust in Geneviève’s arms. But then, finally, Mélisande returns – just as she first appeared: emerging from a chrysalis deposited by the cloaked Wanderer, presumably to set in train a new, enigmatic cycle of despair.
It is a touch of directorial genius to match Debussy’s own, as the composer’s constantly shifting, extended harmonies and long, parlando vocal lines resist resolution, even to the dying chords of the opera (in the remote, opalescent key of C-sharp-major). Under Koenigs’ baton, the score’s shimmering harmonic palette is beautifully coloured throughout. But more intense still is the subtle pacing of the drama on stage and in the pit, which wonderfully reflects Debussy’s innovative use of musical tempi and duration as vehicles for expression.
In Pountney’s production, the characters and action move in absolute, fluid tandem with the deep-lying shifts of timbre in Debussy’s score; a fusion which depends upon both director and conductor – likewise the cast – having an instinctive feel for the composer’s subtle use of metre and harmonic rhythm, as well as for the naturalistic flow of the dialogue. Mélisande’s arms-outstretched pacing and sinking to the ground; Golaud’s increasingly explosive anger; Pelléas’s hesitant, breathless wooing; it all relates wonderfully to the score, and seems to grow from the music as mysteriously as Mélisande herself emerges from the forest floor.
Altogether, a stunning achievement for the entire Welsh National Opera team, and a production which surely sets a new benchmark in Pelléas interpretation.
* including soprano Mary Garden, the first ever operatic Mélisande – a casting which led the furious playwright to challenge Debussy to a duel, which they never fought. Maeterlinck later acknowledged that the composer had understood the work more than he himself did, and brought it to perfection in his opera.
Banner photo of Mélisande (Jurgita Adamonytė) and Golaud (Christopher Purves) by Clive Barda.