How very, very disappointing that my first live experience of Debussy’s more than ambiguous love opera and my first experience at the Hong Kong Arts Festival was lacking in both the artistic and administrative arenas.
I was able to secure my tickets with a ready credit card reference, but having two suppliers for the same festival, distinguished only by venue, makes it a challenge for newcomers to slip into their seats with the greatest of ease. And seating a horde of latecomers well into Act 1 only served to drag the already sluggish proceedings down still further. Thankfully, there was only one errant cellphone…
Sadly, director David Pountney’s realization of Maurice Maeterlinck’s well-constructed libretto and Claude Debussy’s marvellously balanced score (largely between ethereal bliss and brooding angst) played too fast and loose with the greatness before him to engage, much less entrance the capacity audience. The lack of any sort of a collective shared experience was palpable.
Opting to go with a human skeleton outline of the tower as the main set (nonetheless marvellously rendered by Johan Engels) quite literally kept the principals too far apart to feel the passion during their prime moments—most notably the hair scene where Pelléas had to settle for three long-locked maidens swirling around him while his short-lasting love writhed about on a platform by herself (some might view that action very uncharitably). The decision to replace both the opening spring and, later, the Blind Men’s Well with copious amount of sloshing water suitable for bathing (spoiler alert, Mélisande does) is almost laughable if they weren’t so at odds with the original artistic intent—losing the wedding ring becomes more comic relief than dramatic moment. Having three very much alive women portraying the “three sleeping white-haired beggars” may well have been due to touring budget restraints but, once again, ruined the effect.
In the pit, the Welsh National Opera orchestra did their best for conductor Lothar Koenigs, but the maestro’s gestures were too fluid when clarity was needed, resulting in ensemble that was far from razor sharp (kudos to the trumpets for managing one of the most challenging entries from nowhere in the literature). With such a deliberate pace throughout the opera, the absence of inner tension denied the composer of his demonstrable genius in this most challenging work. The chorus was astonishingly weak.
As to the cast, the men fared much better vocally than the women. Alfred Reiter’s deeply nuanced Arkel led the way; Christopher Purves’ Golaud was appropriately menacing while Jacques Imbrailo did his level best as Pelléas trying to love from afar. Playing Mélisande, Jurgita Adamonyté needed more dramatic skills and the ability to not fear employing “less is more” in the quieter moments (Jessye Norman’s recordings can provide a master class on this too-rare technique); Leah-Marian Jones’ Geneviève couldn’t find the required level of stoicism and uncategorical love; Yniold, in the very capable hands of Rebecca Bottone, worked well on many levels, but—touring follies II ?—convinced no one that she was a precocious boy whose voice had yet to change.
Pelléas et Mélisande
Stage Producer and Director, Peter SteinConductor, Pierre Boulez
Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Much more to admire
This DVD/Video from the same opera company is light-years ahead of the above production. The voices are all stronger (it is hard to imagine a better Arkel than Kenneth Cox’s riveting interpretation). Boulez gives the music all of the flow required to sweep up any listener, and with far less ensemble vagaries than Koenigs’ reading.
Peter Stein places his live production in front of the cameras with intimate knowledge of every working piece, resulting in a visual presentation that deftly reinforces the tragic drama.
The camerawork and editing further add to the overall understanding: there’s nothing ambiguous about that.
Pelléas et Mélisande
Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra
DGG 423 089-2
Right to the heart of the matter
Five years before Stein’s production, Ozawa and his Bostonians got virtually everything just right in this memorable CD—this time the composer is Gabriel Fauré.
From the very first notes, the “Prélude” is warm, well voiced and lovingly shaped. “Fileuse” has a compellingly easy flow as the melodies (notably from the oboe) are gently accompanied by delicate pizzicati.
Soprano Lorraine Hunt offers a fine legato and superb diction (English) in her heartfelt rendering of “Chanson de Mélisande.”
The ever-engaging flute lines in the properly famous “Sicilienne” are supported by Ozawa’s ideally paced lilt. “La Mort de Mélisande” builds exceptionally well to its inevitable conclusion.
Those who love the Fauré suite would be well advised to experience’s Debussy’s full-length version; and vice versa. JWR