Liebau, Eva


PelleasClaude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opernhaus Zürich, 2004 | Franz Welser-Möst, Sven-Eric Bechtolf, Rodney Gilfrey, Isabel Rey, Michael Volle, László Polgár, Cornelia Kallisch, Eva Liebau, Guido Götzen | Arthaus Musik

The 2004 Zurich production of Pelléas et Mélisande is a curious one, but then Debussy’s only complete opera is a strange and enigmatic work. It’s a work that is founded on ambience and ambiguity, as much in the libretto - Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama brought over almost intact - as in the haunting qualities of Debussy’s music, which do not underscore or emphasise specific emotions in the traditional manner as much as suggest otherworldly mood and mystery in the hidden depths that lie within it. The production design consequently also goes for a non-specific, otherworldly location within a snow-bound world that seems to work well with Debussy’s floating lines, the coldness and detachment of the expressions, as well as the enclosed intimacy and oppressiveness of the subconscious passions that underlie them.

By far the strangest element of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production however is the use of life-size dummies, looking uncannily like the characters themselves, which are carried around by them or maintain a presence throughout the performance. Not only are these dummies carried around, sometimes propelled around the stage in wheelchairs, but the characters interact more with the dummies than the actual people they represent. The key to this, of course, is that they are indeed representational and symbolic - the word symbolism deriving from a separation into halves between the real and the representational - and this feels entirely appropriate within an opera that, derived from a symbolist drama, is about much more than the surface interaction between the characters. The idea emphasises not only a failure to connect meaningfully with the other characters, but that they even suffer from a sense of detachment from their own sentiments and feelings.

This is expressed wonderfully within the drama itself in a number of enigmatic scenes that rely on creating resonances and sensations, and Debussy adds to the growing sense of unease through his unsettling scoring and linking musical interludes. Rolf Glittenberg’s set designs for the Zurich production, although strange, create an equally unsettling and ambiguous atmosphere that works well with the nature of the work, while even the strange marbled stone suits worn by the inhabitants of the royal castle (but not Mélisande) raise questions or create impressions about their inner nature.

The minimalism, the symbolism and the obsessive repetition, all emphasised in this production through the division between the disembodied figures and their mannequins, seems to reflect a similar haunted quality to the one in Robert Wilson’s distinctive production of this opera, where the characters seem to be ghostly figures acting out roles and gestures that have been played out many times before, perhaps at the instigation of Golaud - or even obsessively inside his own head - though his inability to discover, or recognise “the truth”. There’s a fatalistic quality in the work that bears out this idea, Arkel in particular for example mentioning, at the news of Golaud’s marriage to Mélisande - the woman with no past - that “we only ever see the reverse side of destiny, the reverse even of our own”, that Golaud “knows his future better than I”, and that “perhaps nothing that happens is meaningless”. These figures all seem to be searching for meaning and significance in objects, in rings, in towers (a Citroen car here), in a golden ball, and even in the indecipherable blank expressions of dummies. By the end they seem to be no nearer to an answer and the eternal mystery of Pelléas et Mélisande persists.

The production design won’t be to everyone’s taste, but this is a good all-round performance of the opera. Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Zurich orchestra marvellously through the beautiful floating score with a mood and tempo that matches the ambience of the snow-smothered production and the fluid revolutions of the set. The singing and the performances are excellent, particularly Rodney Gilfrey, who seems to delve deeply into the character as Pélleas, but Isabel Rey is also a fine Mélisande, Michael Volle a particularly tormented Golaud, bringing a remarkable intensity and much needed dynamic to the work, and László Polgár brings deep beautiful tones, to a dignified but somewhat opaque Arkel.

The Blu-ray release from Arthaus is a repackage of the previous TDK release, retaining even the label on the disc itself and the original TDK menus. The HD picture quality is very good, the sound well distributed with a cool tone on the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 mixes. There are no extra features on the disc itself, which is region-free. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian.

ClariJacques Fromental Halévy - Clari

Opernhaus Zürich, 2008 | Adam Fischer, Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier, Cecilia Bartoli, John Osborn, Eva Liebau, Oliver Widmar, Giuseppe Scorsin, Carlos Chausson, Stefania Kaluza | Decca

It’s very rare to see any work by Jacques Fromental Halévy performed nowadays, and he may indeed be an unjustly neglected composer, but discovered by Cecilia Bartoli while exploring the repetoire of the famous Rossinian mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran, this early work, Clari from 1828, composed to allow her to demonstrate her extraordinary range, is certainly one of his most obscure and forgotten works by the composer. Respectfully played with period instruments by the Zurich La Scintilla orchestra under the baton of Adam Fischer, treated to a fresh production from Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier to give some character to a dreary and uneventful plot, and with Bartoli demonstrating her wonderful vocal range, Zurich Opera certainly give the opera a fair shot, but whether Clari is an opera that merits such treatment is debatable, and the overall feeling is that it really wouldn’t have been such a great loss if it had remained buried.

Composed for an Italian libretto, before Halévy’s more famous, or at least more celebrated, French opéra comique work, Clari is an opera semiseria, which doesn’t mean that it’s only half-serious and plays its silly plot out with tongue firmly in cheek (although the production half-heartedly and perhaps out of necessity plays it that way). Rather, it’s a kind of mixture of opera seria (long after it had gone out of fashion even in 1828) and bel canto, full of long arias pondering internalised emotions expressed with extravagant coloratura in the da capo singing. This is fine if an opera has an involving plot and strong characterisation that can bear the weight of all the deep expressions of guilt and shame that are agonised over in Clari, but the story is not so much ludicrous as flat and pedestrian.

It involves a young peasant girl, Clari, who leaves her family in the provinces and runs off with a rich Duke in search of wealth, a better life and, most importantly love – or at least at the bare minimum, marriage. The Duke however hasn’t fulfilled his promises in this respect – to the great shame of her parents – and when he starts referring to Clari as his cousin, the young woman is further dismayed with the situation she is in. When the Duke’s servants Germano, Bettina and Luca put on a play for Clari before assembled guests at a birthday party in her honour, the story so resembles her own situation that Clari – believing it to be real (!) – faints out of shame. That’s about as far as any plot goes in Act I. Act II has each of the characters agonise over the situation until Clari eventually recovers from the shock and decides she has to run away, returning to her home in the country to try to gain the forgiveness of her parents in Act III.

As far as dramatic and emotional content, that’s about as far as it goes. One doesn’t necessarily expect a complex or credible plot in a bel canto opera, but really, the libretto, by Pietro Giannone, is pretty banal and sparseness of the plot and hollowness of the emotional charge scarcely merits all the moaning and wailing about wanting to die of the shame and guilt of it all that is expressed at length in the arias. None of it feels sincere, although it not for want of trying on the part of the performers or the stage direction team. Leiser and Caurier go for a non-specific relatively modern time period, glitzy and colourful with big props in the style of Richard Jones, adding humorous and self-knowing little touches, but none of it is enough to breathe any life into this corpse of an opera, and their efforts consequently feel leaden and fall flat.

The Zurich audience don’t seem to be sure what to make of it either, laughing politely at one or two places, but are clearly bewildered about what to make of the character of Clari herself or the amount of effort and technique Cecilia Bartoli expends on the empty phrases of the libretto, all in the vain attempt to make her character come to life. It’s only in Act III that they belatedly decide to applaud the efforts of John Osborn’s Duke and give an enthusiastic and deserved ovation for Bartoli – but one feels they might have mistaken her garguantuan efforts as signaling the end of the opera a little before its time. Eva Liebau as Bettina and Carlos Chausson as Clari’s father also make notable contributions, but it’s hard to take their roles seriously or indeed “semiseriously”.

Released on DVD only as a 2-disc set, the colourful qualities of the staging suffer a little from the lack of a High Definition presentation. The image looks reasonably well in the brighter sequences, but it’s a little murkier in the scenes at the end of Act II and start of Act III. Perhaps being spoilt by DTS HD-Master Audio mixes, the quality of the audio lacks precision of tone, particularly on the lower frequencies, but it’s actually not bad on either mix, although I think the LPCM Stereo wins out over the DTS 5.1 Surround. There are no extra features on the DVD set, but there is a worthwhile booklet enclosed which includes an interview with Bartoli, an introduction to the work, productions notes, a synopsis and even a photo-novella of the opera.

PelleasClaude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opernhaus Zürich, 2004 | Franz Welser-Möst, Sven-Eric Bechtoff, Rodney Gilfry, Isabel Rey, Michael Volle, Lázló Polgár, Cornelia Kallisch, Eva Liebau, Guido Götzen | TDK

Debussy’s only full-length opera, composed in 1902, could be considered somewhat difficult, and indeed part of the reason for its difficulty could lie in the composer consciously striving not to imitate Wagner. If the Wagner influence is still evident in Pelléas et Mélisande however, Debussy takes the idea of music-drama a little bit further, making it difficult to find conventional melodies, leitmotifs or even a clearly definable plot, the almost mythological storyline flowing rather to its own pace, rhythm and purpose. In reality, it’s not a difficult opera at all, unless you bring such expectations to it, but rather, left to work to its own unique operatic language, allowing yourself to go with the flow, it’s actually easy to become caught up in the strange world that Debussy creates.

The strange nature of the opera and the musical arrangement that it consequently adopts undoubtedly have more to do with the nature of the source work for the opera, a symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck that relates less to the conventions of narrative cause-and-effect drama, but more to the internal states of the characters being made manifest in the world around them through objects, environments, landscapes. Their behaviours are therefore less easily defined, unconstrained as they are by conventional means of expression and communication. Musically, this is also how Debussy’s score operates. Trying to associate the music with the singers through the traditional form of expression then can be problematic and not lead to expected rational conclusions. Much better to let those elements just seep in, create their own resonances that are less literal and more impressionistic and suggestive.

As such Pelléas et Mélisande is not an opera that needs to be tied to any specific period – unless a director wants to make a specific statement – and to tie it to a particular time or place is likely to create social/environmental meanings that may be contrary to the intention of the piece. This means that the opera can either be set in that vague non-time-specific no-man’s land that opera does so well, or, rather more controversially, it is open to rather more extreme interpretations. The staging here by Sven-Eric Bechtoff for the Opernhaus Zürich in 2004 consequently can be seen as being either wilfully bizarre or just perfectly suited to the unusual nature of the opera. In outline, the story is not that complicated. Lost in a forest while hunting a boar, Prince Goland discovers a young woman, Mélisande, weeping by the side of a lake. He doesn’t know who she is, although there is a crown at the bottom of the lake, but rescues her and they are married. Mélisande however forms a closer attachment to Goland’s brother Pelléas, a relationship that, inevitably, is to have tragic consequences.

There is however more going on between the characters than is evident on the surface, each of them having hidden natures, each of them unable to fully relate to or communicate with one another. As a means of bringing this out, Bechtoff places the characters in some kind of winter fairy-tale kingdom to emphasise the nature of their isolation, while he employs full-size look-alike dummies for each of the characters to act as doubles for them, the characters more often speaking to the dummy counterparts and pushing them around in wheelchairs than relating to the actual people. It all seems rather obvious and it’s tempting to see the device as just an expression of how people are puppets being used by others for their own purposes, but that is also too obvious and, in a symbolist work where there is just as much emphasis on objects – hair, rings, towers – it’s appropriate that the characters are objects themselves (the split into halves indeed being the original definition of symbolism). In this light, and on a non-rational basis, what appears to be a bizarre conceit proves to be uncannily effective, and when the characters do communicate directly with each other – as opposed to interacting with dummies – it does force you to take more notice of what is being said.

How much you will buy into this depends largely on your tolerance for high-concept modern stagings and how much credence you give to the symbolist movement, since other than perhaps in the film work of Antonioni and his disciples, their style doesn’t have a great deal of relevance or influence and is not held in great regard nowadays, certainly not from a literary viewpoint. It’s important to note however that the staging is not a distortion of the intentions of the opera on the part of the producers, but rather, if it doesn’t adhere to the letter of the work, it is nonetheless perfectly in keeping with the spirit of it, and certainly matches the spirit of Debussy’s musical composition. Making use of a revolving stage, the production is certainly effective in its dreamy fluidity, but it’s also exceptionally well sung, particularly by Rodney Gilfry as Pélleas, but Isabel Rey as Mélisande, Michael Volle as Goland and László Polgár as King Arkel are all marvellous. The orchestra playing is superb, particularly in the excellent High Definition sound reproduction on the Blu-ray.