TDK


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.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Claus Guth, Alexander Pereira, Michael Volle, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Guy de Mey, Elena Moşuc, Emily Magee, Gabriel Bermúdez | TDK

Claus Guth’s opera productions are known for being psychologically-based – delving into an old, familiar work – as in his productions of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, or in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – and seeing whether a more modern outlook and a wider consideration of the composer’s intentions can’t illuminate some aspects of the characters’ behaviour. As such, it would seem that Guth has had all his work done for him when it comes to this 2006 production for the Opernhaus Zürich of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about the composing of an opera that is so self-reflexive that it surely doesn’t need any further deconstruction.

One wonders whether Strauss was thinking in part about his own opera Der Rosenkavalier, when he came to write Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about an opera that mixes opera seria with opera buffa, that is played out in the most farcical, old fashioned and self-absorbed manner, while at the same time making a comment on serious deeper underlying aspects that the farce helps illuminate. Der Rosenkavalier is even self-reflexive itself on the nature of opera composition, on the history of opera, on the ability of opera to mix singing, drama and music, to be able to mix serious elements and low-brow comedy and through this unusual combination of elements be able to reach deeper truths about life, about love, about time and our place in it all.

It’s already been done in Der Rosenkavalier, so is there anything else that can be brought out of the idea by making the idea the entire purpose of Ariadne auf Naxos? Well, in the very premise – a wealthy patron decides to combine two operas that he has commissioned, one a commedia dell’arte farce, the other a serious treatment of a classical subject, so that both will be finished in time to entertain his guests with a fireworks display at 9 o’clock – there’s certainly a satire on the commerce of opera. Opera can aspire to high art, but it also needs to entertain and the two need not be mutually exclusive. There’s also a great deal of satire involved at the expense of the precious composer who cannot bear to see others destroy all his work and serious intentions, who also has to deal with the conflicting demands of his leading singers and their egos.

If the prologue is almost stultifyingly predictable in its high-brow cleverness and in the so-called comedy of this set-up – played out largely unmusically in near-recitative parlando – the proof of the concept is in the “opera” itself. Even using commedia dell’arte standard character type and classical archetypes, the manner in which they collide with each other brings out underlying truths about human nature in each of them, aided and assisted by the power of music, “the holiest of arts”. Thus the humble Zerbinetta, seemingly at ease and taking pleasure in the nature of love affairs between men and women, is nonetheless able to understand the deep suffering that Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, is undergoing, but although “the grief of illustrious and noble persons mustn’t be measured by the standards of mere mortals”, Zerbinetta asks, “But are we not both women?”, and she herself has been abandoned to countless desert islands. When Bacchus arrives then, himself in torment, Ariadne recognises that her suffering hasn’t been in vain, but rather leaves her born anew, with a new god to worship – not man as a god, but the love that springs up in this new ground that lies between them – and Zerbinetta smiles in silent recognition.

In some ways, the truth of Ariadne auf Naxos and the collision between life and art is borne out in the actual difficulties of its composition and the struggle between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to strike a balance between communicating ideas through the words and expressing it in the music – an idea developed further in Capriccio – making the opera entertaining and having something important to say, while also being comprehensible. Out of the dialectic collision in Ariadne auf Naxos (and Der Rosenkavalier) of the German opera influences of Mozart’s buffa tragic-comedies and Wagner’s lyrical romanticism, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal hope to demonstrate their theory and move towards a more modern form of opera. It may not be considered as important or as revolutionary as Wagner’s theories (the musical and thematic concerns of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal are very evident in Ariadne auf Naxos), or Gluck’s before him, and the balance between theory and practice may not be entirely satisfactory, but it would lead the way to further developments in Strauss’s career and have an undeniable impact on the modern form of opera as we know it today.

Ariadne

That the opera itself is set in the present, or in a relatively modern context as opposed to its antiquity or commedia dell’arte setting, isn’t unexpected from Claus Guth – but what is strange is that at least up until the close of the double curtains, there is never any sense of it being an opera – a compromised opera – within an opera. The meta-level of the Prologue is kept almost completely separate from the main opera (apart of course from the flawed human actors who are metamorphosed through the magic of opera into exquisite beings) and it is played completely straight, notwithstanding the fact that the setting – not an island, but a detailed representation of the famous Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich, where Ariadne is lamenting her woes over a bottle of wine – is much too elaborate to be a small production for assembled guests at a dinner party.

Going to such detail and with such realism, one has to conclude that Guth clearly wants to make the opera meaningful to a Swiss audience, drawing lines between the aristocracy and the lower classes in the split between the serious and the comedy, between the mythological characters and the opera buffa characters, and is trying to find something relevant to the operas themes in this opera-class conflict. Perhaps a Swiss audience is able to derive some deeper meaning from this than myself, but it’s certainly a valid aim to present a 21st century take on an opera that is itself a 20th century take on older styles of opera composition, continually refreshing it and exploring the contrasts for some new resonance.

Much as I find some aspects of Ariadne unsatisfying as an opera – mostly with it trying just too hard to be clever and witty – it does at least have this to always making it interesting and always capable of revealing new ideas. If that fails – and I’m not sure it works terribly well in this case, only adding to the self-referential complexity – there is at least always the most beautiful music and singing in the monologues of Ariadne and Zerbinetta, Strauss as ever writing beautifully for women’s voices, and in particular putting some of the most challenging singing in the entire opera repertoire into the role of Zerbinetta. The singing in this production is superb – Elena Moşuc a vibrant Zerbinetta, Emily Magee a strong, elegant Ariadne, Roberto Saccà a beautifully lyrical tenor Bacchus – but then in this opera, it really can’t be anything else.

TDK’s Blu-ray of the production is fine, the transfer showing the detail in the well-lit sets. Audio options are LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1, the surround track having the advantage of the wider range and sounding marvellous. Other than a couple of Trailers, there are no extra features, interviews or looks behind-the-scenes.