Mathevet, Julie


Dispute

Benoît Mernier - La Dispute

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Patrick Davin, Karl-Ernst Herrmann, Ursel Herrmann, Stéphane Degout, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Julie Mathevet, Albane Carrère, Cyrille Dubois, Guillaume Andrieux, Dominique Visse, Katelijne Verbeke | La Monnaie - Internet Streaming, March 2013

For his second opera the Belgian composer Benoît Mernier set about trying to find a text that would work with that particular quality of opera that is able to touch on mythological and universal subjects and make them vital and human. The subject of La Dispute, based on an eighteenth century drama by Marivaux has a theoretical, experimental edge as well as a human drama at its centre which makes it a perfect fit for Mernier’s intentions. It’s one consequently that the composer scores with precision and sensitivity, even if neither he nor the production entirely succeeds in bringing it to life.

It’s somewhat appropriate however that Marivaux’s text, written in 1744, is treated musically in Mernier’s La Dispute not entirely unlike a French Baroque opera. At the outset, in the first dispute, you have Cupid and Amour defending their respective positions of influence over the human heart, Cupid advocating liberty and freedom of choice, Amour seeing him/herself as the protector of romance and fidelity. Who is to blame then when the rot sets in, as it seems to be doing in another dispute that is taking place in the mortal world between the Prince and Hermiane? Having been caught dallying with another woman at a party, the couple’s argument takes a theoretical turn as they debate whether it is the man or the woman who is ultimately responsible for infidelity.

To answer that question, the Prince says, you would need to go back to the beginning of time to the first man and woman, which of course is impossible. Enter Cupid and Amour, disguised as Mesrou and Carise, who are just as interested in the resolution of this question. It just so happens that they have four young people, two of each sex, brought up in isolation with no outside influences and completely unaware of each other. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how these perfect subjects interact with each other? Wouldn’t an experiment undertaken under these strict laboratory conditions provide some insight into the matter being disputed?

What develops does indeed follow the lines of a dispassionate scientific experiment and, unfortunately, that seems to apply to the music and the opera as a whole. Like George Benjamin’s recent Written on Skin, one wonders whether it is even possible now to really engage with operatic characters in modern opera or whether there isn’t necessarily always going to have to be some kind of detached observation and commentary. It’s all a little too coldly calculated here in La Dispute which never really seems to come to life for all the accuracy of the observations. The conflicts of Amour and Cupid and the Prince and Hermiane are really just a framework then, one that has been filled out by the librettists Ursel Herrmann and Joël Lauwers from other Marivaux texts, while the main part of the work indeed focuses on the lab experiment of the two young couples who are gradually revealed to each other.

This experiment takes place under observation within a brilliantly designed set by Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann, a neon lit cube framework within a Garden of Eden-like environment cut off from the real world. First we meet Églé, a young woman enchanted by her own reflection in a stream, who finds her belief in her own beauty validated when she is introduced to the adoring Azor. The young couple, who have never seen anyone other than Mesrou and Carise, are inevitably totally enraptured with the discovery of each other. Until, that is, they become aware of another young couple, Adine and Mesrin. Then, as they become less certain of their own uniqueness and start to develop insecurities, things begin to get complicated.

Principally, the answer to the question of ‘la dispute’ would appear to be clear enough from how things develop. The insecurities initially arise when the two women, Églé and Andrine, meet each other. It’s not a pretty sight. Jealousy arises out of the thought that someone might regard the other as more beautiful than themselves and that person becomes a threat. The only way to prove one’s superiority it seems is to win over the other’s lover, and since they are merely men that is not a difficult object to achieve. This might seem a rather slight if not entirely inaccurate observation, but it ought to be developed further and on a less theoretical level by the various other levels of the dispute. There is a little more edge and ambiguity introduced through the human presence of the Prince and Hermiane, but not to any real conclusive end. But perhaps a true conclusion ought not to be reached other than making the observation that, ultimately, human feelings cannot entirely be understood or even trusted.

When you are getting into such matters in opera, this is where the music should say more than the text, but unfortunately - beautiful though it is - Benoît Mernier’s score doesn’t reveal any great depths to these academic characters. There’s something academic about the score also, which accompanies the situations perfectly, picking at the characters’ hesitant first steps, showing developing emotional awareness and curiosity, extending out into more complex personality traits as the characters interact through some marvellously written duets, but little of it seems to hint at anything more than is already apparent in the text and the dramatic situations alone. The musical language inevitably leans towards Debussy, but without the mystery and haunting impressionism.

If it doesn’t entirely come to life then or reveal any great depths, the qualities of the singing, the production and indeed the work itself are still clearly apparent. Stéphane Degout and Stéphanie d’Oustrac are two of the finest talents in French opera and sing beautifully here, but they aren’t really given a lot to work with in characters as insubstantial as the Prince and Hermiane. There’s rather more of a challenge in the roles of the young couples, and Julie Mathevet and Cyrille Dubois stand out as Églé and Azor, but there is fine work and good interaction also with Albane Carrère’s Adine and Guillaume Andrieux’s Mesrin. Dominique Visse throws himself fully into another ambiguous cross-dressing role as Amour/Carise with verve and personality, and is matched in this by Katelijne Verbeke’s Cupid/Mesrou.

The clarity of the diction and the purity of the singing voices are supported by a meticulously arranged score that is perfectly balanced between spoken accompanied dialogue, arioso singing, duets and purely musical interludes in a way that allows each of the singers and their dramatic expression to stand clear and shine. The Hermann’s sets, lighting and direction also work to enhance every aspect of the dramatic text, everything coming together to provide a superb spectacle and beautiful accompaniment for an interesting work that nonetheless never amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

La Monnaie/De Munt’s production of La Dispute was broadcast on the internet via their web streaming service, the performance recorded on the 10th and 13th February 2013. It’s available for viewing until 17th April 2013. Subtitles are in French, Dutch and German only. The next broadcast from La Monnaie is Pelléas et Mélisande, which will be made available for viewing for three weeks from 4th May 2013.

PelleasClaude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Philippe Jordan, Robert Wilson, Stéphane Degout, Vincent Le Texier, Franz Josef Selig, Elena Tsallagova, Anne Sofie Von Otter, Julie Mathevet, Jérôme Varnier | Opéra Bastille, 28 February 2012

The sheer perfection of the match of Debussy’s music to Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande is unparalleled in the world of opera. It stands alone as a unique piece of music-theatre that is incomparable with any other opera - even Debussy was unable to repeat the experiment with unfinished attempts at some works by Edgar Allan Poe, and it remains the only opera he ever composed. It’s not possible to improve on perfection of course, but there is another element that is just as important when it comes to actually staging the work, and those are the choices made by the director. Robert Wilson’s production for the Paris Opéra, first seen in 1997 has been revived several times over the last 15 years, and is revived again in 2012 for good reason. Once seen, it’s hard to imagine Pelléas et Mélisande being staged in any other way. The match of Wilson’s unique vision to the opera is as close to perfection as Debussy’s music is to Maeterlinck’s drama.

Everything that has become familiar with Robert Wilson productions over the years is here in his production of Pelléas et Mélisande, but rarely has it been employed so evocatively, expressively, imaginatively and as a whole with the tone of the original opera work as it is here. Reflecting Debussy’s own Belle Epoque symbolist, oriental, ancient Greek and Egyptian influences in the arts (the subject of an exhibition in Paris at the same time as the opera is revived there), Wilson’s stylised imagery of hieroglyphics come to life is perfectly fitting. Placing angular figures in dramatic poses framed in silhouette against luminous pale blue backlit backdrops, with floating objects and geometric shapes placed prominently on a bare stage, subtle gradual shifts of light and the occasional flash of bold colour, the effect when matched with the moods of Pelléas et Mélisande is completely beguiling and utterly beautiful. What Robert Wilson brings to this particular opera however, more than just a bag of theatrical tricks that have been employed over the years to different effect in works as varied (and with varying levels of success it has to be said) as Aida, Madama Butterfly, Einstein on the Beach, Orfeo and Orphée et Eurydice, is a revelatory visual expression of the mystical haunted quality of the almost surreal fairytale.

The term haunted seems an appropriate way to describe the dreamlike experiences of the figures in Pelléas et Mélisande. Here in Wilson’s production, the characters seem to float or stand frozen in strange poses, as if they are ghosts compelled to reenact a series of actions that have been played-out time and time again, detached from their original context, their movements reduced to a series of mannerisms. They each inhabit their own space, crossing by each other without touching. So when Mélisande lets down her hair, it’s a mimed gesture, and when Pelléas wraps himself in it, he’s not even close to the tower where Mélisande is standing. Likewise, Golaud talks about lifting little Yniold to spy on his brother and his wife, but he doesn’t physically hold him, and nor does Yniold, reporting their actions, actually see them on the stage. When figures do actually touch, it’s at very specific moments and the impact is every bit as dramatic as the situations that the drama and the music describe.

Pelleas

Seen like this, much of the mystery that has surrounded Pelléas et Mélisande for over a century can suddenly be seen in a new light. It is indeed as if all the figures are merely spectres caught in a timeloop, doomed to continually play out their own part in the drama that has unfolded in an attempt to understand the mistakes they have made that has led to such a tragic conclusion. Nothing ever changes, they repeat empty gestures, coming no nearer to understanding the sequence of isolated events, and have no hope of averting the fate that is in store for them. Suddenly then the mystery of Mélisande’s strange appearance in the forest at the start of the opera and her cries of ‘Ne me touchez pas! Ne me touchez pas!‘ begins to make sense. She doesn’t know how she came to be there, but it’s as if she has a sense of the tragic destiny in store for her - the crown at the bottom of the water perhaps the one she later wears when she marries Golaud, the prince of Allemonde - and her words are a vain attempt to stop it before the train of events are set in motion once again. In Wilson’s production, Mélisande rises after she has been declared dead at the end of the final act, and the story seems to be about to recommence all over again.

One would think that a native French singer would be a prerequisite for the rhythms of the sung/spoke dialogue that Mélisande has to deliver (the dramatic singing qualities of Nathalie Dessay for example, who I’ve heard singing the part exceptionally well), but Elena Tsallagova is one of the more outstanding young Russian singers who have come to prominence through their association with the Paris Opera’s Atelier Lyrique. A magnetic, ethereal presence in her flowing, angular costume, she sang the role flawlessly - a perfect fit for the role. I can’t say I’ve ever seen characters actually smile in a Robert Wilson production, and one would think it even less likely in this melancholic work, but on the couple of occasions when such an expression came over Mélisande’s face, Tsallagova managed to make it seem quite unsettling. Stéphane Degout didn’t seem quite so comfortable striking poses as Pelléas, and his beautifully lyrical baritone seemed a little light for the role, but it complemented Tsallagova’s Mélisande well and suited the ethereal tone of the production.

Pelleas

The singing in the other roles was immensely powerful to balance the lightness in tone of the two main protagonists. Vincent Le Texier was a terrific Golaud, commanding and a little frightening in his rage, jealousy and suspicions - you can understand exactly why Julie Mathevet’s Yniold quivers the line ‘J’ai terriblement peur‘ in his presence. Franz Josef Selig’s deep warm bass and beautiful enunciation gave genuine warmth to his Arkel and Anne Sofie Von Otter was a likewise solid presence as Geneviève.

One of the greatest and most enigmatic works ever composed for the stage, it’s the endless fascination of its mysteries and its inescapable tragedy, as well as the feeling that the answers are there somewhere within and the words and actions of the characters and might eventually yield some clue as to its meaning, that ensures the work’s enduring popularity. Always thought-provoking, illuminating works in a new way, Robert Wilson is particularly brilliant with a work that has particular significance and a special place in the repertoire of French music. Performed live, Pelléas et Mélisande is one of those works that take on an entirely new dimension, and in such a context with the cast assembled at the Bastille in Paris, and with the terrific orchestra of L’Opéra national de Paris conducted by Philippe Jordan working its way through the intricacies of Debussy’s score, the effect is incomparable.

There will be a live internet steaming of the performance of 16th March 2012 via the Opéra National de Paris’ web-site. It will remain available for internet viewing until 16th June.