Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday September 21 2008

Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth. Production: Pierre Audi. Set: Anish Kapoor. Costumes: Patrick Kinmonth. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Pelléas: Stéphane Degout. Mélisande: Sandrine Piau. Golaud: Dietrich Henschel. Geneviève: Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Arkel: Alain Vernhes. Un médecin: Jean Teitgen. Un berger: Wiard Witholt. Yniold: Valérie Gabail. La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Pierre Audi’s engimatic new production of Pelléas et Mélisande at La Monnaie had the regulars (subscribers there have the same seats every year and end up knowing each other) guessing at the interval and the end.

To start with, Anish Kapoor’s beautiful (and beautifully-lit, Bob-Wilson-style) set. This consisted of a huge, curvaceous red object on steel struts, with metal stairs and a gantry, rotating as need be on the glossy black floor. The simplest way to describe the shape is as a cross-section, lengthwise, of the teat on a baby’s bottle. Apparently, to Audi it was “a pregnant woman’s stomach, a foetus, a love-nest, a torture chamber, a human eye or a sexual symbol.” Some of those we got, some we didn’t, and some of us found more: a fish, a vase, a uterus…

And then… why was Mélisande bald? Had she escaped from a hospital? Perhaps so, because in act 5, now cured by the doctor, she at last had long hair; but not having any before then made the “hairy” scenes awkward. And what about that caked, dried blood? In act 1 she had a large bloodstain at her lower abdomen, in act 5 as well: first period (sexual awakening), then childbirth? Other characters had these wounds as well.

Everyone got the reference to Bluebeard: the servants in act 5 had already appeared in act 3 when Golaud led Pelléas down into the vaults to peer into the abyss: they were at the bottom of it, in the same dresses as Mélisande. Golaud, overall, was a tormented, menacing and sometimes openly violent brute. Mélisande was as much a manipulator as a victim. Pelléas was basically a nice, handsome young man. Golaud was not quite a nice old man, but tried to force his attentions on Mélisande when left alone with her. Yniold was, to say the least, shrinking. Geneviève lurked.

All of this, though not making any more sense than usual of the libretto, was very finely directed, in costumes that managed at once to be timeless (in form) and contemporary (in fabric). Dietrich Henschel in particular put in a characteristically committed performance, though with a voice unusually light and fleshless (but as elegant as ever in phrasing) for the role. Stéphane Degout gets better and better, or is perhaps now at his impressive peak. Sandrine Piau turned out not to be such odd casting after all and was audible most of the time. And most impressive of all (she got the loudest applause) was Marie-Nicole Lemieux: a pity she didn’t get more to sing.

The diction throughout made supertitles superfluous, though hearing every word of Maeterlinck’s text may, of course, be more of a drawback than a boon. And I don’t really see why some papers panned the orchestra and conductor: La Monnaie’s band may not navigate the gentle rippling of Debussy’s score with the silky seamlessness of, say, a BSO or VPO, but they sounded on fair form to me, playing with unusual delicacy.

For lovers of the work (they exist: the worldwide web has made public all manner of eccentricities. I confess it does absolutely nothing for me) this visually striking and excellently cast production might be one to have on DVD.

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