Olsen, Frode


Pelleas

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Ludovic Morlot, Pierre Audi, Anish Kapoor, Stéphane Degout, Monica Bacelli, Dietrich Henschel, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Frode Olsen, Patrick Bolleire, Alexandre Duhamel, Valérie Gabail | La Monnaie Internet Streaming, April 2013

There are many ways to approach a work as mysterious, suggestive and as unique as Pelléas et Mélisande, and the stage production in particular is one that is open to free and imaginative interpretation. The opera is already symbolist and dreamlike in its origin and nature, so the question of whether to make a stage production traditional or modernist isn’t so much the issue. For the stage director, the challenge rather is whether to impose some sense of reading onto it or to give free rein to the work’s beautiful abstraction.

Ideally perhaps a production should have a balance of both elements in order to match Debussy’s intention to create “a mysterious correspondence between Nature and the Imagination” in his composition of the music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play. With this in mind, La Monnaie’s Pelléas et Mélisande would seem to be well-placed to provide both elements with Pierre Audi’s direction giving the work a meaningful context connected to human Nature, while the set designs by Anish Kapoor bring that other essential ingredient of abstraction and Imagination. The correspondence between them is more difficult to define, but that’s perhaps where Debussy’s music lies.

Owing something to Henry Moore’s huge curved sculptures, the centrepiece of Kapoor’s all-purpose set design is both abstract and organic in design, a large scooped-out object supported by steel girders with a staircase and a platform. From some angles it resembles or suggests an ear, an eye or a womb - all of which can be seen as relevant symbols for this work - which through rotation presents different aspects that represent a cavern, a castle, a tower or an immovable rock. It’s sufficiently abstract then to match the nature of the work that wouldn’t be as well-served by a more literal depiction of those objects.

Audi’s direction works effectively around this strong, resonant central image, requiring almost nothing else in the way of props. He resorts to a little bit of abstraction and symbolism also - it would be hard not to with the suggestiveness of this work - particularly with regard to the figure of Mélisande. In fact, everything in the production seems to be based on or seen in relation to Mélisande. From the moment she is discovered by Golaud, an open wound on her stomach can be seen through her dress, is caressed later by Pelléas and becomes fully vivid and bloody at her death scene. There’s certainly a case that Mélisande is at the heart of the work. All the other characters are defined by their relationship with her, and Mélisande herself becomes an object that is defined by how others see her.

This could perhaps explain why - as absurd as it might seem particularly when her hair plays such a symbolic element in the drama - that Mélisande here is also actually bald for the most part. When she leans down from the tower then in the opera’s critical scene, it’s not her hair that Pelléas caresses, but a silk scarf. Emphasising a symbol though its absence seems a strange thing to do, but it’s the meaning rather than the object that is important, and the impact and relevance of the scene here is scarcely lessened. What counts more than the pleasure of Pelléas is the response of Golaud since this is to have a much more profound impact on Mélisande, and Golaud is everywhere in this production, watching and seeing but not understanding, or not wishing to understand.

Audi’s direction and Kapoor’s abstract symbolism don’t perhaps fully connect to bring any new resonance out of this Pelléas et Mélisande, but Debussy’s impressionistic score is always suggestive and responds well to new ideas and new approaches. Ludovic Morlot, the new music director at La Monnaie, is alert to the lyricism of the work but he also brings out its expressiveness. This is not an entirely floating dreamlike account of the score, but one that seeks to indeed assert the music’s position as the intermediary between Nature and the Imagination.

It certainly brought out a fine performance from Stéphane Degout as Pelléas. With a lovely soft lyrical baritone and clear French diction that is alive to the rhythms of Debussy’s conversational writing for the voice, Degout is currently one of the best interpreters of this role. This is the third time I’ve seen him sing Pelléas and he brings a new deeper resonance and expressiveness to the role here. Monica Bacelli’s sings a fine Mélisande, with perfect timing, good French diction and a delivery that complements Degout well, if not with the same distinction. In a production that had an alternative cast, there were good performances also here from Dietrich Henschel as Golaud, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo as Géneviève and Frode Olsen as Arkel, with Valérie Gabail a bright Yniold.

This recording of La Monnaie’s production of Pelléas et Mélisande was made on the 17th and 19th of April 2013 and broadcast via their free web streaming service from 4th to 24th May. Subtitles are available in Dutch and French only. The final web broadcast of La Monnaie’s 2012-13 season, a production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte by the Oscar-winning Austrian film director Michael Haneke (Amour), will be available for free viewing for three weeks from 26th June.

MacabreGyörgy Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2011 | Michael Boder, Àlex Ollé, Valentina Carrasco, Werner van Mechelen, Chris Merritt, Frode Olsen, Ning Liang, Barbara Hannigan, Brian Asawa, Inès Moraleda, Ana Puche, Francisco Vas, Simon Butteriss | Arthaus Musik

Although it may be one of the most popular works of contemporary opera, you aren’t going to see too many productions of György Ligeti’s only opera, Le Grand Macabre due to its demanding nature and its limited appeal to a rather specialised opera audience. So when the Liceu in Barcelona (with La Monnaie in Brussels and the ENO in London) decide to put on a rare production of the work and go as far as to make a world premiere video recording of it, you can be thankful that the challenge of finding an appropriate look for the all-important visual representation of this work has been given to La Fura dels Baus, the experimental Catalan production team perhaps most in tune with such an unusual work and capable of relating to its status as an “anti-anti-opera”, which is not quite the same thing, as you might imagine, as just an opera.

Le Grand Macabre most certainly isn’t “just” an opera, but it is one that fully exploits the full range of dramatic, musical and singing opportunities for expression that the medium is capable of. Often dissonant and cacophonic, it’s not however unmusical and indeed is made up of quite expressive musical passages and “quotations” that draw from a wide range of classical influences that demand a certain musical virtuosity, creating a complex soundscape of musical language and sonic textures. The singing in particular is extremely demanding, full of flourishes and vocal gymnastics in near-impossible tessitura. The difference between Le Grand Macabre and this kind of musical expression in other Ligeti compositions lies however in the visual and dramatic nature of opera, which is equally if not even more important for this particular work, and in that respect this extraordinary production, spectacularly imagined and directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus with Valentina Carrasco, enables the viewer to experience the work in its fullest expression.

Based on the play ‘La balade du Grand Macabre‘ by Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, quite what the opera is an expression of however can be rather difficult to determine from the playful wordplay, gross vulgarity and nonsense dialogue that makes up most of its libretto. Like the musical accompaniment however, the tone of the words and the highly expressive delivery of them all serve to add to the sonic picture of its depiction of the imaginary Breughelland, with all the grotesque characterisation and the end-of-times connotations for our own reality that the name suggests. In the midst of all the absurd, lascivious, perverse and violent activity of the characters on the stage however, the main narrative thread is clear enough when Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre, arrives in Breughelland and announces to Piet the Pot that the end of the world is nigh. The moral, when this prediction is proved to be false, is made clear at the end and delivered in traditional operatic fashion - face fear and it will pass, enjoy life without worrying about death or putting your faith in those who would claim to know better acting as guides and leaders.

All men on earth must perish” - even Piet the Pot knows that, “…but no-one knows the hour“, Nekrotzar, tells him. Àlex Ollé appropriately seems to choose to set the production of the Liceu’s Le Grand Macabre indeed during the few seconds preceding the imminent death of an overweight woman - seen in a short video introduction - who has enjoyed the excesses of a Big Mac-abre junk-food feast and is lunging for that last pizza slice when she suffers a heart attack. A huge model of this woman in her death throes dominates the stage, her face contorted in agony, those final moments and the excess that has clearly been part of her life, drawn out and encapsulated within the surreal and nightmarish situation depicted by Ligeti through the operatic medium. The huge splayed naked body revolves 360-degrees between the four scenes of the two acts and is clambered over and dissected in a disturbing fashion, with a wiggling tongue, detachable nipples and other moveable parts and orifices that the characters delve into and appear from. Costumes too are cleverly designed to suggest body parts, organs and musculature. Technically, with the impressive use of projections, it’s a theatrical tour-de-force by La Fura dels Baus, but more than just spectacle, it’s a brilliant interpretation that adds further levels of resonance and involvement to a work already quite rich in symbolism and suggestion.

I don’t think this work could be performed in any other way than with complete abandonment of any sense of propriety or dignity - and perhaps even comprehension - but it does demand extraordinary discipline on the part of the singers and commitment to the unusual methods of expression that Ligeti resorts to. The English diction isn’t always perfect here with some of the Spanish members of the cast, but it’s hardly the most important consideration. That’s not a problem for Barbara Hannigan, but her challenges lie elsewhere in the vocal exertions that are demanded from her in the roles of Venus and Gepopo, the Chief of Secret Police. She not only handles these with astonishing facility, but also with verve and character, as difficult as the roles must be to play. Similar commitment and flights up and down the vocal range are called for from Chris Merritt as Piet the Pot and Frode Olsen as the Astronomer Astradamors, but really, there isn’t anyone in this cast who doesn’t impress on a number of levels in how they rise to the challenges presented by this work.

Le Grand Macabre is still a rather demanding work that can be loud, vulgar and disorienting in its absurdity and nonsense, not seeming to have anything particularly enlightening to reveal for all the effort that is required to view and listen to it, but this is all undoubtedly an essential part of what the work is about. As an anti-anti-opera, it does seem to work both within the framework and as a reaction to the original anti-opera inclinations of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht, exploring similar field of the baseness of human impulses that can be found in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny (also impressively produced by La Fura dels Baus recently at the Liceu and also available on DVD and BD), not in any elevated or theatrical manner, but in a way that revels in and supports the basic (or base) intents that lie at its heart. This production and its performance at the Liceu in Barcelona can hardly be faulted for the imaginativeness of its vision, the boldness of its interpretation and the technical brilliance of its presentation.

Undoubtedly a production that it would be better to experience live in the opera house, Le Grand Macabre nonetheless comes across very well on the small screen. It’s very well filmed to focus on the details of the performance, while keeping you in mind of the larger picture that, in any case, would be hard to ignore. The quality of the High Definition Blu-ray transfer is excellent, the 2-hour work fitting comfortably onto a single-layer BD25 disc, the image quality near-flawless, handling the darkness of the stage lighting well. The audio tracks are a vital aspect of the whole experience and they come across well in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The BD also includes a good in-depth conference-style Making Of feature that has all the key players in the stage production discussing the development of the ideas, influences and technical considerations behind the concept, and an interview with Michael Boder on the musical side of things. The BD is all-region, full-HD, with subtitles in Italian, German, French, Spanish, Korean and Catalan.