Welser-Möst, Franz


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.

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.

TieflandEugen D’Albert - Tiefland

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Franz Welser-Möst, Matthias Hartmann, Matthias Goerne, Peter Seiffert, Petra Maria Schnitzer, Lázló Polgár | EMI Classics

Born in Glasgow in 1864, Eugen D’Albert’s musical education in Austria is however one that, based on what is evident in his opera Tiefland (1903), indicates that he is very much a disciple of the Wagnerian school, with even a bit of verismo in his choice of subject and its handling. Apparently Bizet’s Carmen was also an influence on the composer, but although there are a few musical leitmotifs that bear the mark of the original Catalan/Pyrenean setting of Tiefland (based on the play Tierra Baixa - The Lowlands - by Àngel Guimerà, also made into a controversial film by Leni Riefenstahl), the influence is more in the subject of romance, passion and jealousy in a bucolic setting leading to tragedy (a hint of Gounod’s Mireille in there also) than in the actual musical arrangements.

The poor fool caught in the middle of a romantic entanglement here that eventually stirs killing passions is Pedro, a simple shepherd in the mountains who is offered the hand of the miller’s daughter Marta and a place down in the lowland valley by the landlord Sebastiano. Pedro innocently accepts, unaware of the reality of the situation that is known to everyone else in the lord’s household. Sebastiano is in debt and needs to marry a rich woman, but that won’t happen as long as the knowledge of his affair with Marta is widely known and spoken about. His intention then is to safely marry her off to an innocent fool that she couldn’t possibly love so as to keep up appearances of respectability while she remains his “bit on the side”.

Musically, Tiefland follows the Wagnerian model, with long solo singing of emotional intensity that purposefully drives the drama forward, with little in the way of conventional arias, duets or choral arrangements, but the music has a strong musical presence and leitmotifs that support the singing and indicate the nature of the characters and their motivations. Matthias Goerne is strongest, both in voice and dramatically, making Pedro’s wide-eyed naivety convincing while at the same time showing that he has inner depths and integrity that could indeed draw Marta to rather precipitously fall in love with him. Petra Maria Schnitzer perhaps doesn’t look like she has natural gypsy dancer roots, but sings well as Marta. Peter Seiffert doesn’t quite have the fullness of tone or the menacing build that you would associate with Sebastiano, but takes on the villain role with some relish and without overplaying.

The staging of this 2006 production at the Opernhaus in Zurich attempts to visually steer the drama away from its obvious models and references, and is thereby quite successful in allowing the piece to stand on its own. Some of the decisions are quite bizarre – the opening prologue takes place in what looks like a science-fiction laboratory where the announcement of Pedro’s engagement takes place in a virtual reality, cleverly assembled on projected screens – but thereafter, up until its reappearance in the final scene, the rest of the production is more naturalistic, taking place however in a lush stately house rather than in any period country exteriors.

The 140 minute opera is spread across two-discs on the EMI Classics DVD. The image is 16:9, the image fine, showing a well-lit stage. Audio tracks are LPCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.0 and DTS 5.0. The sound is a little thin without the low-end, and sometimes a little echoing, but the singing and orchestra can all be heard clearly. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian.