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23 Jan 2013

Pelléas et Mélisande in Nice

Pelléas et Mélisande, in t-shirts and jeans, were out riding bicycles. They came upon a fountain. You know what happened.

As we already did because it was all a flash back. We had seen Golaud, dead, a bullet hole on the top of his head, seated in a sort of chair carefully and cleanly created out of a piece of a classic Greek column. He was surrounded by a lot of strangely dressed people plus an even stranger one in a clown costume (lacking only the red bulb on the nose). This we soon found out was Yniold.

In a bit less than three hours Mélisande was dead too during a psychedelic light show that took place beyond the Zen garden behind the very gray, very angular Japanese pavilion that served as the unit set. This garden setting was perhaps intended to invite us to conjure in our meditations all those fountains and grottos and bleak seascapes that other times make Debussy’s masterpiece one of opera’s sublime experiences. We were however just then participating in a violent domestic tragedy making meditation difficult.

The day of Mélisande’s death and his own Golaud chose to wear a bright maroon suit with black stripes. Pelléas was of course already dead having chosen to wear red blazer and a yellow shirt with a colorful tie for his late night fateful farewell to Mélisande. Mélisande who had a short, pert haircut had to pretend that a blue and gold scarf, obviously from India, was the hair that Pelléas tried to wallow in.

Costumes were by the production’s stage director, René Koering (père), sets were by Virgil Koering (fils) who evidently has a thing about radio operated model cars because this high tech toy was also featured in Wolf-Ferrari’s Secret of Susanna [the secret was that she smoked dope] that he designed a few years ago for Montpellier. Arkel on the other hand was pushed around the stage in an antique wheelchair.

The Opéra de Nice, a Belle Époque monument, these days boasts fairly large pit, allowing a quite generous number of strings. The accomplished Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice did indeed provide some of the rich sonorities that can make this remarkable score an orchestral tour de force. The conductor was Philippe Auguin, its music director (Mo. Auguin is also the music director of the Washington National Opera).

The maestro surely will have had an agreement with the cast that they would be entirely on their own for the duration of the opera as he did not so much as even glance at the stage, remaining buried in the score when not energetically encouraging the various players and sections of his orchestra (Mo. Auguin was quite visible to me as I had press seats courtesy of the Opéra de Nice in a box directly over the pit and stage). This presumed agreement however had its flaws — the engrossed maestro did not connect with the stage. The huge, shattering moments that make Pelléas and Golaud two of the repertoire’s most complexly emotional roles were rendered orchestrally soulless, their impact filtered through the maestro’s ponderous orchestral processes.

The singers (directly below me) were in fact brilliantly connected to the Maeterlinck tragedy and were well able to negotiate the text rendered into Debussy’s urgent melodic shapes and rhythms. Baritone Franck Ferrari (a Niçois with an Italian surname) gave a powerful performance as Golaud. Ferrari possesses a dark hued voice with reserves of virile power, ideal for Maeterlinck’s tragic hero. He is a consummate singing actor who gamely executed even the strangest moments of the stage direction.

Lyonnais tenor Sébastien Guéze proved himself yet again to be a very accomplished interpreter of the French heroic roles (Faust as well as Pelléas as examples). His French is crystal clear, his voice is able to expand into ever greater fortes of emotional release in Debussy’s most intense moments. The scenes of his sexual discovery of and declaration of love to Mélisande were the most thrilling of the evening.

A last minute replacement for the Arkel listed in the program (no explanation why, leaving room for speculation) was American trained black bass baritone Willard White. Jamaican born White is one of the renowned basses of recent times. Obviously a powerful performer he added an unusual, lascivious magnitude to Arkel that seemed to make him the primary architect of the tragedy. Mr. White’s French had a bit of a twang at first but we got used to it.

French early music diva Sandrine Piau was the Mélisande. Her voice is of sufficient amplitude to convey the indecision of this famous enigma though the mise en scéne deprived her of the ambience and the persona needed to enflame the above gentlemen. Mlle. Piau gamely pretended that Mélisande had a psychotic breakdown before she died. Russian born, French trained soprano Khatouna Gadelia gave Yniold a far more energetic and knowing presence than this emblematic innocent usually possesses.

It is hard to fathom what quirk of old-boyism handed a new production of this masterpiece to veteran opera intendant René Koering when there are so many easily identifiable French stage directors who have the technique, experience and imagination to plumb its depths with intelligence and sensitivity. Mr. Koering is a jack-of-all-operatic-trades. This attribute served him brilliantly as general director of the Opéra National de Montpellier, but it does not give him the experience or artistic stature to mount a production on what should be an important provincial French stage.

Michael Milenski

Cast and Production

Pelléas: Sébastien Guéze; Mélesande: Sandrine Piau; Golaud: Granck Ferrari; Arkel: Willard White; Geneviève: Elodie Méchain; Yniold: Khatouna Gadelia; Doctor: Thomas Dear. Chorus of the Opéra de Nice Côte d'Azur. Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice; Conductor: Philippe Aiguin; Stage Director: René Koering; Costumes: René Koering; Set Design: Virgil Koering; Lighting: Patrick Méetüs. Opéra de Nice. January 17, 2013.

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