Gilfry, Rodney


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.

CyranoFranco Alfano - Cyrano de Bergerac

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 2007 | Patrick Fournillier, Michal Znaniecki, Plácido Domingo, Sondra Radvanovsky, Arturo Chacón Cruz, Rod Gilfry, Corrado Carmelo Caruso, Roberto Accurso, Javier Franco | Naxos

The story of Edmond Rostand’s epic romantic drama ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ (1897) should be known to most audiences from the various film versions that have been made – some of them even predating Alfano’s 1937 opera – the most notable being Gérard Depardieu’s performance as the long-nosed character in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s popular French film from 1990, but it may also be known to more through Steve Martin’s modern updating of the role in Roxane. The story however is essentially the same, that of a man with an exceedingly large nose that disfigures his face, who believes that he is ugly and unworthy of the love of his beautiful cousin Roxane. Working closely to Rostand’s original text, Rappeneau’s film captured all the comedy, wit, romance and tragedy of the situation, retaining the verse format of the original, and did it so well that it’s impossible for anyone who knows and loves the film version not to measure up Franco Alfano’s opera against it. It has to be said that the opera compares very favourably, working so naturally that one wonders why it isn’t better known and more frequently performed.

Alfano, who is now only really known for the rarely performed Cyrano and for completing Puccini’s final opera Turandot after the composer’s death, only succeeds intermittently in finding the right tone and melody to engage the audience in the drama, but he is wholly convincing in the areas where it counts most – in the romantic expressions of love between Cyrano (acting on behalf of another man) and Roxane. The arias and duets that consolidate the nature of their love (“Sens to mon âme un peu dans cette ombre qui monte?” and “Je lisais, je relisais. J’étais à toi”) achieve a perfect expression of the highly florid nature of the romantic declarations and the underlying depth and sincerity of the sentiments with all the mastery of a student of Puccini. If it were just for these two arias alone, Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac does complete justice to the work, but there is great skill in how the essence of the story fits around it. The dramatic action is somewhat condensed in the opera but it retains all the essential qualities that make the work so charming and doesn’t lose a fraction of the emotional depth or spirit of the original.

It does so of course, because that is the great strength of opera, allowing expression of such elements through the music and the singing, and Alfano plays to these strengths. In the film version, I find Roxane comes across as somewhat bland, insipid and superficial, and you need to will a sense of disbelief to understand what inspires such passion in Cyrano apart from her beauty, but here she has a much more active role and is much better characterised, principally through the musical arrangements, and, of course through the singing. Here we have Sondra Radvanovsky, who conveys the full force of her character’s nature and passion through her singing, if not so well in her acting or facial expressions. Rod Gilfry is marvellous as De Guiche, actually almost making his character sympathetic and less of a moustache-twirling villain. Arturo Chacón Cruz is fine as Christian, but it’s a thankless role that has no real arias and is always upstaged by Cyrano. As Cyrano, you couldn’t have anyone more charismatic than Plácido Domingo. His French diction isn’t the strongest, but he has all the passion and charm that the swashbuckling hero demands and is in fine voice in his 121 role.

The staging at the Palau des Arts in Valencia is fine, striking a good balance between the period and a modern approach to staging it, without introducing any incongruous elements. The stage however is a little dark and the recording, even in High Definition on the Blu-ray, doesn’t enable you to see the detail and the overall impact of it all. The audio, even in lossless LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, is also lacking, but mainly due to how it was recorded. The microphones are clearly far from the singers, as there is a lot of ambient noise and stage clatter, the singing sounding rather echoing, occasionally drowning out the rather thin orchestration but at other times being overwhelmed by it. For the most part however, the qualities of the singing and the music, and the opera itself are no less evident. Overall, it’s a slightly imperfect live recording, but an otherwise fine presentation and performance of an opera that really deserves to be better known.

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.