DEBUSSY Pelléas et Mélisande (Pascal)
The challenging Malmö company from the southern tip of Sweden looked largely to France (and, intriguingly, to experience of the Baroque) for the artistic make-up of its 2016 production of Debussy’s opera. Three of the main principals, conductor, stage director and design team all hail from there. The result is a fresh look at the aesthetic of the work but a frustratingly incomplete one.
The opera’s Allemonde location becomes here a unit set totally invaded by the forest which in Maeterlinck’s text has dominate both the characters’ imaginations and become the actual setting for some scenes. Other necessary material elements – balcony, fountain and old man Arkel’s throne – are suggested by modern-looking structures permanently sited among the plentiful trees, rather like an outdoor holiday camp. It’s a potentially liberating alternative to the heavy Romantic look often given to the piece in performance (or the imprecise symbolism once applied by Josef Svoboda at Covent Garden) but is insufficiently used in the action to lead anywhere much.
We’re in a more modern world costume-wise than Maeterlinck’s original play suggests with the principals (Geneviève aside) free of habitual over-dressing. Jenny Daviet and Marc Mauillon’s near-lovers, in young persons’ 1960s pastel shades and cut, could have walked straight out of a nouvelle vague Godard or Truffaut movie – another interesting alternative direction for the text’s complex symbolism that’s not followed through. Their acting and singing (Mauillon’s publicity describes him as a ‘baritenor’) never tries to force the opera’s deliberate limiting of their naturalistic characters into mere weirdness. Daviet also is clear about showing Mélisande’s fear of the big, wide world. Stephen Bronk’s Arkel is solid although little has been made of the character apart from physical ageing. Laurent Alvaro works hard with his face to make Golaud’s confusions and frustrations clear to the audience. The child Yniold, as so often in bigger houses in the past, is a soprano but Julie Mathevet does a good (if more mature) ‘boy’. The production here harks back to the play in giving Yniold a roaming on-set sequence of silent appearances to help build a claustrophobic atmosphere around the court of Allemonde.
The Malmö orchestra play most alertly for conductor Pascal. In keeping with the new directions sought by the stage production he secures a harder, less Romantic Debussy sound which is more resonant of slightly later contemporaries such as Bartók than the proto-Wagnerian splendours of Inghelbrecht or the proto-modernity of Boulez. Sound and balance are excellent but the filming is certainly (perhaps appositely) not lavish. The performance asks a lot of interesting questions but should be sampled before committed purchase. The cameras have ignored several great Pelléases but the Peter Stein/Pierre Boulez Welsh National production, with its well-trained cast, remains unmissable.