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Recordings

Claude Debussy: Pélleas et Mélisande
24 Jul 2006

DEBUSSY: Pélleas et Mélisande

Whatever its flaws - and it has them - this Zurich Opera production of Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande boasts qualities that carry it very far from the standard view of those opera goers who considers the work dry, dull, and depressingly long.

Claude Debussy: Pélleas et Mélisande

Rodney Gilfry, Isabel Rey, Michael Volle, László Polgár, Cornelia Kallisch, Zusatzchor Opernhaus Zürich, Orchester der Oper Zürich, Franz Welser-Möst

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Of course the opera has its fans and has long established itself in the repertory. However, it is very far from a crowd-pleaser, and the typical company that programs it is wont to pack the rest of the season with favorites such as Aida, Boheme, and Carmen. Director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, set designer Rolf Glittenberg, and conductor Franz Welser-Most have collaborated to produce a taut, ominous, and even propulsive account that, despite the referenced off-putting moments, strips the "airy" from the "fairy-tale" aspects of Maeterlinck's story and allows the characters to operate both on a symbolic level and as flesh and blood humans. That success trumps the niggling complaints, no matter how unavoidable they may be.

The staging emphasizes chillness - white as in ever-present snow, gray as in the metallic wall at the rear of the uni-set, and frosty gray-blues as in the costumes of the adult male characters. Mélisande, Yniold and Genevieve get deeper blues. Paradoxically, this cold environment heightens the seething passions below the characters' placid outward appearances.

The most controversial element of the production, the use of mannequins designed to resemble closely the singers for each role, is a risky move that pays off in many scenes - but also provides a few questionable moments. These doubles serve to reinforce the characters' misperceptions and obliviousness of others, and also toward themselves. Often characters sing to the double while the person actually being addressed is preoccupied elsewhere. For the most part, this does heighten the pathos of the situations. But oh, how one wishes Golaud did not take the head of the Yniold doll and place it on the roof of a car to "spy" on Pelléas and Mélisande. Or that Golaud did not walk off stage at one point and drag on the inanimate double of Pelléas. And touching on other directorial inspirations, did Mélisande really have to get her caught in the car door of the sedan that serves as her tower? Instead of panic as Golaud approaches, all one can think is "ouch!"

Taken as a whole, however, the conceit must be credited as something essential to the brooding power and forward momentum of this production. When Pelléas and Mélisande finally let down their defenses and express their love to each other, no doubles are visible. They have stripped away the facade that life with Golaud had forced upon them, and the tenderness they show each other makes the conclusion all the more shattering. At the end, it is the "doll" Mélisande that Golaud grieves over - the "real" Mélisande gambols away, playing with a golden ball that Yniold had lost earlier.

Welser-Most's conducting may be controversial for some adherents of a mistier, softer reading of the score. Here the rhythms are crisp, even emphatic at times, and a forward pulse like an impassioned heartbeat makes itself felt. The fine Zurich orchestra plays with real distinction. This urgent musical support matches the staging's impetus brilliantly.

If no member of the cast delivers a vocal performance of the highest standard, each of them sings and acts with dedication and a commitment to the director's vision, without which the staging would not hold together. Isabel Rey may not have the slim physique or ethereal appeal of some Mélisande's, but she is fully within the character, and her well-supported delivery makes her character less of an enigma or male fantasy. In fine voice, Rod Gilfry has all the notes and the physical appeal of a believable Pelléas, and he earns the title billing: this is his tragedy as well. The central character, however, is Golaud. Michael Volle never gets beyond the character's dark obsessiveness, and without at least some empathy for this sad man, Golaud becomes almost a movie character villain. Perhaps a little more softness and color in the voice would have helped.

Often confined to a wheelchair, László Polgár's Arkel manages to be both helpless to stop the unfolding tragedy and a warm presence in this frigid world. Eva Liebau doesn't have to struggle to appear boyish as Yniold, since the abstract nature of the production doesn't call for realism. Thus we can relish the ease and beauty of her voice, and firmer intonation than a child singer can usually provide.

As always with any non-traditional production, viewers who already know they have a preference for a staging which strictly adheres to the original libretto's dictates would not find much to enjoy here. For all others, and especially those who have found Debussy's masterpiece slow-going in the past, this Zurich production, despite the above-mentioned caveats, may be one that will open up the dark magic of Pelléas and Mélisande to them.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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