Debussy – Pelléas et Mélisande

Opéra National de Paris – Bastille, September 29 2004

Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling. Production: Robert Wilson. Pelléas: Simon Keenlyside. Golaud: Franck Ferrari. Arkel: Ferruccio Furlanetto. Le petit Yniold: Sébastien Ponsford. Un médecin: Frédéric Caton. Mélisande: Mireille Delunsch. Geneviève: Dagmar Pecková. Un berger: David Bizic. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Disappointing Pelléas despite potentially strong cast

Pelléas et Mélisande is sometimes said to have been ahead of its time. I hadn’t realised, before Wednesday night, quite how far. Golaud’s first words to Mélisande were “Please switch off your mobile phone.” The rest of the audience seemed pleasantly surprised, too. At any rate, the line raised a laugh – the only one of the evening, no doubt. But was Maeterlinck really so prescient; or could there have been a problem with the supertitling sytem, I wonder?

I'm not a great fan of Pelléas. I don’t listen to it at home, but it works for me in the theatre if grabbed firmly by the scruff of the neck and given a good shake, as it were: plenty of drama in the pit and plenty of commitment on stage. Like anyone else, Bob Wilson has his successes and failures. It seems to me that his successes are with works in which there’s inherently a lot going on or a lot of built-in emotion – too much of one or the other, or both, to be wholly minimalised and stylised away. In Die Zauberflöte, things do happen; in Butterfly, too, and it’s a bodice-ripper to boot. His staging of La Fontaine’s Fables at the Comédie Française was lively, charming and funny. But the Bastille production - transferred here from Garnier supposedly to give it more room to breathe - is only Wilson-by-the-yard, reminiscent of Rossini’s quip about Wagner: some lovely moments but "de très mauvais quarts d'heure." A broad, mostly empty stage; an occasional avant-garde prop; black, mobile pillars for trees; some sticks lowered down for the garden; carefully-calculated lighting, mostly blue; white faces; simple costumes; nô-like poses and gestures. There is neither enough actually happening, nor enough bodice ripping, in Pelléas, to breathe life malgré tout into this approach.

The cast were strong but didn't seem committed to or convinced by what they were doing. Wilson, of course, took Mélisande's famous injunction to the extreme: nobody ever actually touched anybody - l'horreur! So Mélisande, with her white face and "Anglo-Saxon attitudes," was no less a puppet or doll than Offenbach’s Olympia - and sang without inflexion. Still, I was very glad to hear Simon Keenlyside live: intelligent, clear and nuanced, very elegant. Franck Ferrari, as Golaud, did get a bit worked up in his voyeur scene with Yniold (in which, of course, there was no tower, nor did Golaud actually touch little Rickie – oops, Yniold - let alone hold him up. The lad just stood on tip-toe). Furlanetto, as Arkel, had a cavernous, almost Slav-sounding voice. Disappointing, then, to have had such a good cast and not get more from them.

Meanwhile, in the pit (raised for the occasion in the hopes of improving the Bastille’s quirky acoustics)… Cambreling's Debussy lacked flow, fluidity. It came across as an accumulation of detail. I was reminded of the old days when the opera orchestra couldn't get Strauss to work - just a jumble of notes not quite fitting together. So overall, instead of the opera sweeping forward on a wave, it fell apart into a succession of disconnected scenes and ended up feeling bitty, incoherent, disjointed.

Applause was politely tepid. We left at the interval. 90 minutes was enough. Another hour of the same wasn't as attractive a proposition as a regina and a carafe of red wine at Pizza Pino. By the way, in the foyer there are stacks of leaflets urging people to subscribe to the current season. The new management have got off to an excellent start with the Paris public: subscriptions down 40%.

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