Robert Wilson is the director, so expect neo-classical elegance, a bare stage lit in blue, black silhouettes suggesting forests and castle. The idea is valid, since Pelléas et Mélisande is a nocturnal fantasy, lit with the strange quirkiness that would inform Pierrot Lunaire. Wilson connects the opera to the psyche from which dream creatures like Pierrot emerge. The picture above comes from the earliest animation of the Pierrot story, made by Émile Reynaud in 1892, using techniques that would be swept away by the advent of film. Watch the streaming on Medici TV HERE and recognize the black and azure.
Maeterlinck's symbolism intuititively revealed the subconscious, years before The Interpretation of Dreams. Wilson's Personenregie has the singers move in slow, deliberately anti-naturalistic gestures as if they're trapped in a semi-conscious state. But Pelléas et Mélisande works because it's disturbing. The music shifts, unsettling perspectives. The deep well, the high tower, blinding heat, dank odours - all part of the turbulence. The narrative seems imposed upon somethiung infinitely more elusive than mortal minds can grasp. Wilson's frozen stasis doesn't reflect the troubling contrasts in the music, nor really express the hidden, dirty horrors that lie within. We see the dead peasants neatly lying on the ground, but only from the music do we know they starved while trying to escape.
Into this psychological concentration camp, Mélisande appears. What does she represent? Golden rings, golden hair that flows like a waterfall and traps poor Pélleas, eyes like luminous, pure pools. Wilson is right that she's not "innocent" so much as amoral, part of the same nightmare that holds Pélleas and Golaud. The real innocent, Yniold, moves almost like a normal person and wears a bronze doublet. Thus the scene where Golaud upsets Yniold by getting him to betray those he loves is extremely effective. Was Golaud himself once a Yniold? He seems to strike out at the boy, who flinches. The blow is held, suspended mid-air, since it's target isn't the son but the father.
Wilson's stylization reminded me of Herbert Wernicke's Tristan und Isolde where the lovers stood suspended in sterile cubes, while Wagner's passion surged all round them. At the time, I wrote that it was "Tristan und Isolde on Prozac" but psychologically, Wernicke was right. Traumatized people turn in on themselves to escape emotion. It's not that they don't feel, but feeling hurts too much. So I'm certainly not going to dismiss Wilson's approach, even though it misses so much oif what makes this opera so remarkable. Excellent moments of insight, but three hours of blue, white and black can make you comatose. Maybe that's the point, but it's hard to take without a large cognac. (Another reason for watching the repeat broadcast at home.)
On the other hand, the stylization highlights the music, which is as it should be. There are advantages. Jordan can let the pace unfold, so the shimmering detail in the orchestration can refresh. Debussy is telling us so much in abstract sound that it frees our imagination to create images of our own. The absolute last thing you want in Pelléas et Mélisande is literal hyper-realism. Jordan gets elegance when needed, but doesn't spare the angular brutality when it's hinted at. Golaud's music is specially well defined, which is important because too often he's treated as stock villain. This opera is Golaud's tragedy, Pelléas and Mélisande the agents that cause his downfall as much as characters in themselves.
Vincent Le Texier is an uncommonly complex Golaud, who commands sympathy. He moves like a statue because that's the staging concept, not his own, but he sings with such resonance that it feels like he's suppressing extreme emotions that will wreck him if he lets them out. The scene where Le Texier's Golaud hits Mélisande growls with deep-felt violence. Again, Wilson shows that the blow doesn't make contact, though Mélisande flinches. Golaud later begs forgiveness, and Le Texier sings as if Golaud were a small boy again connecting to his mother.
Debussy's writing for Pélleas is transparently beautiful, and Stéphane Degout sings exqusitely. He's Pelléas as diaphanous ideal, the purity of his timbre luminous. Although the staging is one-dimensional, Degout's singing isn't. He expresses Pelléas's terrors well, the anguish in the voice all the more moving because he's established such refinement in the character. Pelléas may sound like god, but he's trapped like a mortal. On repeat listening, the depth of Degout's characterization is even more compelling.
Elena Tsallagova sings Mélisande. She looks like a ballerina, and sings with equal grace, but Mélisande is an elusive role, almost impossible to fully interpret. Wilson's non-staging helps Jordan, Le Texier and Degout, but leaves Tsallagova to her own resources, which is is attractive rather than compelling. Anne Sofie von Otter sings Geneviève, and Jérôme Varnier adds personality to the otherwise small part of the Doctor. Franz Josef Selig sounds vigorous and warm as Arkel, which is good - while he lives, there's hope. It's in the plot! Similarly Julie Mathevet's Yniold is vibrant. Her voice is so high that she really sounds like a young boy, but she has the vigour to make Yniold's fears cut. And gosh, does Jordan make the orchestra sound wonderful, in this almost concert performance.