15 Jul 2015

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

I could not for the life of me understand what the problem might have been. What I saw was a thoughtful, highly accomplished, post-Beckettian staging of, well, perhaps the most Beckettian of operas. I could certainly understand that some people might not have liked it, but not only did the terms in which it had apparently been criticised seem almost incredibly extravagant; I could not help but think that those who would not have liked it would in any case not much have liked Pelléas et Mélisande itself. (And besides, there is a world of difference between not ‘liking’ something and thinking it worthless — or at least there should be; it took me two or three years to ‘like’ Elektra, something for which I hold the Solti recording largely responsible, but it never occurred to me that the work was not a masterpiece.)

csm_9C2A4568_3e0e6b59fe.pngElena Tsallagova as Mélisande and Elliot Madore as Pelléas

Christiane Pohle’s provocative — in the best sense — new staging takes place, like the opera, in what we might call, with slight trepidation, lest we be consigned to Pseud’s Corner, a liminal zone, located at the intersection of the meaningful and meaningless. (For anyone interested in vaguely modern drama, which seems, sadly, to exclude vast swathes of opera audiences, the claim should not seem too outlandish.) What could be more instantly evocative of contemporary — to us, at least — anomie and ennui than a ‘stylish’, soulless hotel reception? Staff and guests continue their work, or whatever it is they do, sometimes stepping into ‘character’, sometimes remaining ‘background’. Just as they might in a royal household, one might add. Much is absurd, or so it seems to onlookers, yet it absorbs, even if it does not fulfil. Sometimes it seems to intersect more obviously with the drama, Debussy’s drama, than others, but even when it appears to be dissociated, it somehow focuses one’s attention upon what is ‘happening’, or as so often in this opera, what is not. Spectators on the one hand remain just that, yet on the other are drawn in. We cannot quite say how or why, just as the characters cannot, when indeed they can say anything at all. Questions are posed, occasionally answered, more often provoking another, seemingly unrelated question, or stillness and silence. I have not seen a staging that more closely corresponds to the singularity of Debussy’s drama, and yet which also retains its distance, seemingly — wisely — saying, if this is not for you, then Pelléas, the score and libretto, the memories you might have: they remain intact. This is, or could be understood to be, metatheatricality in a sense both old and intriguingly new; Pohl’s production allows one to take what one will, if only one is prepared to think or even just to experience. Sadly, some, perhaps influenced by what ‘opinion-formers’ had told them, elected to laugh (derisively, at least so it seemed) or even noisily to walk out. If they wished to leave, they might at least have had the decency to wait until the interval.

For some reason, or none, I had it in my head that Philippe Jordan was conducting. I mention that, since I initially assumed that Jordan’s Wagnerian experience might be the reason for the orchestra sounding more than usually Wagnerian. It transpired that Constantinos Carydis was in fact the conductor, yet the echt-Wagnerian sound of the Bavarian State Orchestra persisted. It was, moreover, not just the sound, but the motivic texture that so strongly recalled Parsifal, Tristan, and, to a lesser extent, even the later Ring operas. What often sounds closer to vague similarity here edged closer at times even to plagiarism. But, as Stravinsky noted, lesser artists borrow, whilst great artists steal. There are, of course, all manner of ways to play Pelléas, and doubtless this was shaped in good part by the orchestra’s heritage, but this was fruitful and, again, in the best sense provocative. It could not have been much further distant from Esa-Pekka Salonen’s recent, magnificent Philharmonia concert performance , but had its own, different validity. Carydis judged well the ebb and flow and at times brought the score closer to conventional operatic drama than one often hears. Hearing the orchestra given its head thrilled as it disconcerted, not least in combination with what one saw. There is of course more Wagner in Debussy than Debussy allowed, just as there is more Wagner in Beckett than Beckett allowed. Escape is not an option — or rather it is doomed to fail, if sometimes to fail better.

csm_12_97deee723e.pngA scene from Pelléas et Mélisande

Vocal performances were generally excellent, as were the singers’ responses to Pohl’s often difficult demands. (At least I assume they were hers: this did not seem improvised.) Elliot Madore and Elena Tsallagova offered a truly disconcerting — that word again — pair of lovers, their childishness (weird smiles) married to, indeed productive of, erotic frissons, almost as much as their command of the vocal lines. Madore’s relatively dark tone contrasted intriguingly with Tsallagova’s bright, almost doll-like delivery; both performances contributed to, rather than merely reflecting, our understanding. Markus Eiche’s Golaud seemed initially a little too gruff, and his French was not always quite what it might have been, but his portrayal grew in stature, truly moving by the end. Perhaps that had always been the plan; it certainly made me think. Alastair Miles’s Arkel properly bewildered. (Is that not what more or less everything in this opera should?) Was he victim or in some sense initiator? He refused the either/or, and delivered his text with an understanding that seemed at times almost to pass all understanding. Okka von der Damerau’s Geneviève commanded the stage in a similar yet different way — again, as befits the character. Her vocal shading was not the least of the performance’s pleasures, even if we did not hear so much from her as we might have wished. Young Hanno Eilers was quite the best boy Yniold I have heard; one could often have taken dictation from him, verbally or musically. Still more to the point, his fear made perhaps the most powerful dramatic impression of all. A pointless question, arguably like any relating to this ‘pointless’ opera, but it was difficult not to ask: what does Fate hold in store for him?

Was I perhaps more receptive than I might have been, on account of prior reception? I do not, cannot know; perhaps I was, but that, like so many questions in this opera, is really one for a psychoanalyst. But I do not think I was entirely guilty of finding things that were not there; or, if I was, I was guilty in the productive spirit in which work, production, and performances were also guilty. For this, in the well worn cliché, was more than the sum of its parts, ‘intentionally’ or otherwise, so long as one agreed to be one of those parts. I have not stopped thinking about what I saw and heard; sadly, many seem never to have started.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Arkel: Alastair Miles; Geneviève: Okka von der Damerau; Pelléas: Elliot Madore; Golaud — Markus Eiche; Mélisande: Elena Tsallagova; Yniold: Hanno Eilers; Doctor: Peter Lobert; Shepherd: Evgeny Kachurovsky. Director: Christiane Pohle; Set designs: Maria-Alice Bahra; Costumes: Sara Kittelmann; Assistant Director: Malte Ubenauf (assistant director); Lighting: Benedikt Zehm. Bavarian State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)/Bavarian State Orchestra/Constantinos Carydis (conductor). Prinzregententheater, Munich, Tuesday 7 July 2015.