Wilson, Robert


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.

OrfeoClaudio Monteverdi - L’Orfeo

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2009 | Rinaldo Alessandrini, Robert Wilson, Georg Nigl, Roberta Invernizzi, Sara Mingardo, Luigi de Donato, Raffaella Milanesi | Opus Arte

The minimalist staging of Robert Wilson’s opera productions is not something that is to everyone’s taste, but it is certainly unique and idiosyncratic, and no matter how familiar you are with a particular opera, you can be sure that Wilson’s stage direction will provide a new way of looking at a piece and bring out elements or propose ideas that you might never have considered before. It is however not suited to every kind of opera. His production for Aida several years ago at the Royal Opera House was visually striking in its beauty and in the wondrous and carefully considered colour-coded light schemes, but the static nature of the production simply sucked the life out of one particular opera that merits a slightly more vibrant approach, if not necessarily always quite as flamboyant as Zeffirelli’s.

On the other hand, the stripped-down staging works better, it seems to me, when applied to more abstract subjects or at least the more archetypal matters of Greek mythology in opera seria and Baroque opera. Wilson’s work for the Paris Châtelet productions of Alceste and Orphée et Eurydice, for example, is appropriate and perfectly in accordance with Gluck’s reforming of over-elaborate and long-winded opera. The same should apply, one would think, to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the work that is considered the first opera proper - first performed in Mantua in 1607 - and, for many, the model to which opera should aspire. All the huge archetypes are there in its mythological subject - Heaven and Hades, with Eros, Fate, Hope and, most significantly, Music itself personified and indeed the main narrative force who introduces and tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as the means by which the opera expresses itself.

This is the kind of material that is perfect for Robert Wilson’s interpretations, and all the familiar characteristics of his approach are here in this production for La Scala in 2009 - static figures making strange poses with enigmatic hand movements, stage props reduced to geometric shapes, the colour scheme a limited palette of greys, pale blues and pale green. In contrast to his non-specific approach to Orphée et Eurydice, L’Orfeo is practically period - in the period of Monteverdi, that is - inspired by Titian’s Venus with Cupid and an Organist (1548), with Thrace a Renaissance version of the Garden of Eden, by way perhaps of Gainsborough. On a first viewing, I’m not convinced that such a staging brings anything new from Monteverdi’s famous opera this time, but it is interesting and worth considering.

As for the opera and its performance, well, L’Orfeo is a masterpiece that does indeed wield a heavy influence over the artform, or for at least a hundred and fifty years afterwards. It’s a celebration of man’s ability, intellect and ingenuity, taming nature and the seas, speaking with the voice of the Gods through music and, through Orpheus, even challenging Death itself through his singing and its expression of the finest human passions and sentiments. It’s a worthy subject for what is generally considered the first opera - an artform that would unite so many artistic qualities, not least of which is music and singing. Monteverdi’s opera accordingly lives up to the high standards it sets.

L’Orfeo is more detailed in its scoring and specification of instruments than Monteverdi’s final opera Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria, for example, but how it is performed is highly interpretative nonetheless. Early music specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini’s conducting of the opera of La Scala is therefore not for me to criticise, but I would find it hard to find any serious fault with it other than the actual sound mix not quite having the transparency of other versions I’ve heard - notably the Pierre Audi 1997 recording for DVD at the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. I would however state a preference for John Mark Ainsley’s lyrical Orpheus in that version over the rather deeper tenor of Georg Nigl. The contrasts and differences should be appreciated however, as it is through them that new thoughts and ideas still arise out of an opera that is now over 400 years old - and on that basis, this is a fine production.

The quality of the presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray is as good as you would expect, with a clear 16:9 High Definition transfer, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The only extras on the disc however are a Cast Gallery and an Illustrated Synopsis. The thin booklet presents some background on the history of the opera, but there is no information at all on the production itself.

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

L’Opéra National de Paris, Opéra Bastille | Maurizio Benini, Robert Wilson, Micaela Carosi, Enkelejda Shkosa, Anna Wall, James Valenti, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Carlo Bosi, Vladimir Kapshuk, Scott Wilde | L’Opéra National de Paris, 4th February 2011

What is the colour of Madama Butterfly? You could see it in crude terms of the national flags of the two nations involved in the opera, the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes in a clash with Japan’s the Rising Sun (or indeed, more likely in this particular case, with the pink of chrysanthemums). Such a superficial reading of Madama Butterfly, based on David Belasco’s play, a sentimental tearjerker, could perhaps be justified, Puccini’s score even explicitly evoking the American flag in its Star Spangled Banner refrain and attempting to incorporate Japanese music into the score. If you close your eyes however, listen to the emotional core of the music – a much more delicate and sensitive affair than you might at first think – you might visualise the tone of Madama Butterfly as pale green. Or pale green through to deep blue, with an infinite variety of shades in between, illuminated perhaps at various points with flashes of violent red.

Butterfly

Robert Wilson is the master of conveying the emotional tone of an opera in terms of colour and his reading of Madama Butterfly is convincing on this account. No matter that just about every Robert Wilson production works in shades of blue, green and grey – perhaps those are the colours of opera itself. Nonetheless, even operating within such a limited palette as just a personal signature still provides plenty of scope for the director (although I personally found it very restrictive in his production of Aida for the Royal Opera House a few years ago), and it’s particularly effective in this 1993 production revived for the Paris Opera’s 2010-11 season. In terms of staging and props, the production is unexpectedly minimal – ultra-minimal even, perhaps even more sparse than usual for a Robert Wilson production. “Tutti i fiore” there are certainly not in preparation for the return of Pinkerton at the end of Act 2, and is this a dagger I see before me at the conclusion? No, it’s a mimed one.

Aside from his work for Philip Glass, I’m not used to seeing Robert Wilson’s stage productions in anything other than a mythological or generic antiquity setting, which allows plenty of room for personal touches. Madama Butterfly however is a comparatively modern opera, or one at least in a recognisable period and specific cultural setting, but that’s unimportant as far as Robert Wilson is concerned. Everyone is still dressed in togas and tunics, albeit with an almost science-fictional Oriental touch. Overall however, it’s an approach that works well for this opera, stripping it down, the action rarely extending beyond formalised gestures and hand movements that suit if not imitate Japanese social interaction, effectively undercutting the heart-tugging sentimentality of the traditional kitsch faux-Japanese setting. It also makes use of space effectively – there’s no marriage of worlds here – they sit apart, each with their own ideals and needs, and never the twain shall meet.

Butterfly

Toning down the staging is one thing, toning down the music or the singing in Puccini would however be fatal, and consequently the Orchestra of the Opéra de Paris plough on marvellously, not regardless of the staging, but mindful of the simplicity and the subtlety contained within Puccini’s arrangements, as well as the bombast. James Valenti however didn’t find that balance in his Pinkerton. He has a pleasantly toned voice, but it was much too gentle for this role, and he failed to cut an imposing figure as the American imperialist, even ducking some of the higher notes. He certainly didn’t please some sections of the Paris audience at the performance I attended. Micaela Carosi (introduced in the recent Paris Opera production of Andrea Chénier) was announced as being unwell, but took to the stage nonetheless and performed marvellously. She was everything you could want of a Cio-Cio San (barring ethnicity) and, despite her illness, completely mastered a difficult singing role made all the more complicated by the very specific movements, poses and gestures required for this particular production.

Ultimately, Madama Butterfly is any colour you want it to be, but it fits in rather well with Robert Wilson’s uniquely personal palette and stylisations, not detracting from the power of the opera in the way that his work did for Aida, but giving the characters and their emotional lives space, enhancing and supporting the emotional tone in a manner that draws out its subtleties without over-emphasising, vulgarising or sentimentalising the opera’s crowd-pleasing qualities.