Pelléas et Mélisande at Aix en Provence : orchestrally stunning and vocally top notch. But something was missing. Debussy understood Maeterlinck's use of symbols : images deliberately created to unsettle and disorient, to deflect attention away from the surface to things unseen, lurking in the depths. Hence the references to towers and dizzying heights above the ground, and to silent ponds and open oceans, to caves and underground passages, to death and to constant danger. Pelléas et Mélisande fascinates because it's elusive. This production will appeal to many because it's lovely to look at but it's not Pelléas et Mélisande, but Mélisande The Opera.
But who is Mélisande, and why is she in Allemonde ? Barbara Hannigan is such a celebrity these days that the whole production seems designed around her, which is fair enough. She has remarkable strengths, and it would be a waste not to make the most of them. Hannigan's Mélisande is feisty, physical and extremely strong, a manifestation of female sexuality, which is indeed, a part of the role : those towers and caves are there for a purpose ! Hannigan's looks also play a part, and she gets to disrobe and romp about in nude coloured undies an awful lot : hers is a body that works out a lot in the gym, and is almost androgynous, like Diana, the goddess of the hunt and of the moon, another of the many symbols in Maeterlinck's original play. Mélisande as hunter and killer: the dramaturge, Martin Crimp is onto something more complex than Mélisande wan and wraithlike as a child of the moon. Nearly ten years ago. at the Royal Opera House, Angelika Kirchschlager portayed Mélisande in much the same way and was the saving grace of an unevenly focused production from Salzburg that was never revived. But there's a lot more to Mélisande than this production suggests. I loved Martin Crimp's Into the Little Hill and Written on Skin for George Benjamin (more HERE and HERE), so I have a lot of respect for his insight into this opera. But this time the balance between poetic fantasy and literal narrative goes awry.
Pelléas et Mélisande isn't an opera in the usual sense. It's deliberately non-naturalistic, and the narrative non-literal. Katie Mitchell directs the opera as if it were a dream sequence in which Mélisande acts out sexual fantasies. Hence the wedding gown in which she appears in the first scene. But those who do know the opera would focus more on the greenery that surrounds the bedroom. Golaud is out hunting, when he spots Mélisande alone, in the middle of the forest, by a pool. Anyone up to speed with mythology would recognize she's a variation of the eternal Loreley. And Loreleys don't wreak havoc. It's not personal. Perhaps Mélisande loves Pelléas, but the libretto fairly explicitly suggests that their relationship is more a pact between innocents. Stéphane Degout is probably the best Pelléas around these days, so wonderful in this role that it is a shame that he, too, is reduced to a prop in order to emphasize the role of Mélisande and her dreams. There's a charge between them but it isn't necessarily sexual. The libretto suggests that Pelléas needs to get well away from Allemonde if he wants any sort of future, and Mélisande represents the world beyond, and the unknown.
Allemonde is not so much a castle as a state of mind: It's cut off from its hinterland, the peasants are starving and roaming about in revolt, Yniold is terrified when he ventures out to play. None of which we see in this production, though Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra are brilliant at creating non-visual imagery, for those in the audience who pay attention to music. Under Salonen, the orchestra has developed way beyond the usual parameters of a symphony orchestra. The challenge of opera serves them well. This was a performance so vivid and impassioned that I was glad to listen, since the playing spoke much more expressively than the staging. Degout and Naouri have the parts so fully characterized that they acted properly, their bodies extensions of their voices. Mitchell directed Hannigan to move in trance-like stylization, valid enough in theory, but deadening in practice. The silly eyeliner Hannigan had to wear didn't help, either, suggesting slut rather than half-human vixen.
Franz Josef Selig sang an excellent, virile Arkel, and Sylvie Brunet-Gruppuso sang a nicely down to earth Geneviève, both of them common sense counterfoils that emphasised the bizarre nature of this Mélisande's dream world. Altogether a very good Pelléas et Mélisande despite the one-dimensional interpretation and over-emphasis on Hannigan's thing for nudity which is wearing thin these days. She can sing, so she really doesn't need to make an exhibition. The dream concept might be valid but it doesn't do the opera, and other singers, justice. Less sex, please, but more mystery.
See also the review in Opera Today by Michael Milenski.