At 106-years-old, “Pelleas et Melisande” may be the greatest opera of the standard repertoire that has eluded popular acceptance. Strongly influenced by Wagner’s epic music dramas, Debussy tried to emulate the German master but in his uniquely French way, taking as the libretto for his only completed opera a five-act prose drama by Maurice Maeterlinck. The work is inherently rife with symbolism, but just what does it symbolize? Only a director with a solid concept and a cast able to put across the dense text can succeed. In this outing, Laurent Pelly is not the man for the job.
Expectations ran high when it was announced that Natalie Dessay — the French diva most recently known for being plastered a la Carrie Bradshaw on New York City buses to promote the Metropolitan Opera’s “Lucia di Lamermoor” — would sing her first Melisande in a production directed by frequent collaborator Pelly.
Pelly led Dessay to rapturous successes with Donizetti’s comedy “La Fille du Regiment” in London, Vienna and New York. But here he seems to have no grasp of Maeterlinck’s wispy dialogue and its miles of deep subtext, some of it bordering on surrealism.
Young widower Golaud (Laurent Naouri), father of the infant Yniold (Beate Ritter) and son of old King Arkel of Allemonde (Phillip Ens), is lost in the woods. He stumbles across a girl sobbing by a pond in which she has lost her golden crown, but Golaud doesn’t learn much more except that she was, apparently, severely abused. Melisande offers few facts.
Golaud is soon married to her, but learns no more of her history. She seems far more relaxed with her husband’s younger half-brother, Pelleas (Stephane Degout). The relationship between stepbrother and new wife drives Golaud to fratricide, even though — as far as we know — their love is entirely innocent. It’s not without physical manifestations, however, such as the unforgettable scene when Melisande tosses her long golden tresses from a tower for Pelleas to erotically caress.
When Melisande dies after giving birth to a daughter, the tortured Golaud is left with the uncertainty of whether the child is his.
The production’s highest honor goes to conductor Bertrand de Billy who, with the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, brings far more tension and dramatic coherency from the orchestra pit than Pelly’s bland, monotonous staging. De Billy also shows a sensitivity to his cast almost unheard of in opera: every syllable can be clearly understood, making the best case for Maeterlinck.
Dessay has not yet found her way into what may be the most mysterious character in classical opera. Vocally, the role fits her light lyric soprano to a T, and there are unforgettable moments such as Melisande’s whispered sigh of love for Pelleas. But only time will tell if Dessay can create a complete portrait of this enigmatic character.
Degout and Naouri have had years to perfect their interpretations, delivering deep, finely nuanced portraits of the respective embodiments of innocent love and its jealous, possessive counterpart. Vocally, it would be hard to think of competition.
Ens lacks the vocal heft needed for Arkel, and Marie-Nicole Lemieux the sheer tonal beauty for Genevieve’s single extended solo. Petite soprano Ritter delights as Yniold, turning off her operatic chops and doing a convincing job, vocally and physically, as a prepubescent male child.
Dessay seemed visibly upset during the opening-night curtain calls, rushing offstage before her colleagues. Hopefully, she won’t give up on Melisande. With more experience, it could turn into one of her best career moves.
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How does one evoke the otherworldly ambiance of Pélleas and Mélisande? Not easily and I have yet to see a staging which does full justice to the work, though a few do come close.
The french director Laurent Pelly is well-known for straightforward and fast-paced productions such as Donizetti´s Filledu Regiment and Hänsel und Gretel, both released on DVD. Not an obvious choice to stage an understated, introspective work such as Pélleas and Melisande. Thus, it is not unsurprising that Laurent Pelly seems a bit at loss with this opera that thrives on understating rather than the opposite. By Pelly´s usual high-paced standards, however, the production really is very tranquil. Departing from realism, he has created a rotating stage containing a mix of columns, rocks and the occasional chamber, in effort to create an alluring, ambiguous environment. However, for me, the allure remains absent throughout not the least due to Nathalie Dessay´s Mélisande.
No wonder Laurent Pelly is Nathalie Dessay´s favourite opera director, as they share a lot of qualities: She is a straight-forward, face-paced singing-actress and the role of Mélisande lies relatively well for her with much beautiful singing in the middle section,of her voice. But she cannot hide that her upper register is in ruins and whatever her qualities, understatement and allure are not her strong points. Just in recent years I have heard much superior Mélisandes in both Copenhagen (Elisabeth Jansson), Berlin (Magdalena Kozena) and Paris (Elena Tsallagova). And then there are the ones on CD such as Frederica von Stade, just to mention one.
Stéphane Degout with his rich voice and wonderful introspective way is the ideal Pélleas, but he is not helped by Laurent Pelly´s production.
Best is Laurent Naouri Native French-speakers in major parts. Best are Laurent Naouri (real life husband of Natalie Dessay) in excellent voice with an sufficient underlying menacing air of both menace but also desperation to him that one feels with him and the unfortunate choices that he makes.
Bertrand de Billy captures the moods well but again I have both heard and seen far better in recent years (Simon Rattle, Philippe Jordan and Pierre Boulez on DVD).
I don´t believe the market for Pélleas DVDs has been exhausted with this release. In fact, one of the best stagings I have seen was that of Robert Wilson in Paris a couple of years ago – a static, beautiful staging capturing the moods almost to perfection and with the wonderful Elena Tsallagova as an otherworldly Mélisande matched by Stéphane Degout as Pélleas. Hopefully this will be released on DVD at some point.Nous sommes venus ici il y a bien longtemps:
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):
Natalie Dessay: 3
Stephane Degout: 4
Laurent Naouri: 4-5
Marie-Nicole Lemieux: 4
Philip Ens: 4
Laurent Pelly´s production: 3
Betrand de Billy: 3-4Overall impression: 3