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.

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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.

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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.