Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opéra Comique, Paris, Monday June 14 2010.

Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Production & sets: Stéphane Braunschweig. Costumes: Thibault Vancraenenbroeck. Lighting: Marion Hewlett. Pelléas: Phillip Addis. Mélisande: Karen Vourc'h. Golaud: Marc Barrard. Arkel: Markus Hollop. Geneviève: Nathalie Stutzmann. Yniold: Dima Bawab. Accentus choir. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

“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.” That’s me quoting myself. I always say the same thing when writing up Pelléas, so I thought I might as well copy and paste. I don’t actually remember, but I suppose, when filling out the subscription forms for the Opéra Comique over a year ago, I expected Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire – so good in Les Troyens – and producer Stéphane Braunschweig – so good in Jenufa, one of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen – might do just that: grab it and shake it as required.

I was wrong. At the more violent moments in the score, of course the revolutionary orchestra had bite and attack and plenty of crunchy timbre. But even my neighbour, who, being French, likes Pelléas, found Gardiner’s conducting largely lacked oomph, and those few moments took a long time coming. Also, as one friend very fond of this work put it at the interval, it was more an interesting experiment than a convincing perfomance; there were “accidents” and on the whole I got the impression, right or wrong, that the orchestra wasn’t at ease, or at any rate fluent, in Debussy. This was exactly the Debussy that gives me the pip: gloomy and meandering and grim as a month of wet Sunday afternoons.

As for the production, the truth is that, impressive though Braunschweig’s subsequent career has been, I’ve never seen anything else as good as that Jenufa. I remember his Brussels Elektra only as the “bathtub” production, and remember nothing at all about his Makropoulos Affair (other than that the acoustics in Aix were hopeless and the cast so inadequate that it was left to Anja Silja to carry the show, neither of which was his fault). This Pelléas will be remembered as the “lighthouse” one. Most of the time, in the single, gloomy set of dark, slatted walls and floorboards, there was either a toy lighthouse on the right (Yniold’s), or a very big one on the left (though not actually life size, of course: "That must have been a very small bed,” said my friends) set in what looked like a giant, ugly oyster shell. When unplugged from its setting, it left a large hole that served as the fountain. There was little else on stage at any time, other than a table, a chair, Arkel’s wheelchair, Golaud’s hospital bed or a trapdoor. The “Breton” theme (“Tintin and Captain Haddock,” my neighbour called it) of the lighthouse and oyster was pursued in part in the costumes: Pelléas at one point wore a Breton sweater with buttons along one shoulder. Costumes were black or white (the women’s, in particular, especially tight-laced, high-necked black, though Mélisande also, sometimes, wandered around in a slip with her nipples showing). The acting was carefully directed, and the title pair were portrayed as unusually young, smiling and carefree (as far as either of them can be carefree in this odd play). In the “hair” scene, they were just “making it all up” like children, sitting together at Yniold’s toy lighthouse, so it made sense for Golaud to say they were just kids. But “action-packed” was not the word for this show. Nothing happened. It was dire.

It wasn’t the singers’ fault. With the exception of Markus Hollop, whose voice was strangely disembodied, like an electric buzzer at the bottom of a barrel, they were all strong: Karen Vourc'h a silvery, occasionally crooning Mélisande; Phillip Addis so bright a baritone he’s more like a clarion tenor, loud and almost piercingly metallic at the top; Nathalie Stutzmann, with a voice of burnished bronze, sounding, a friend said, like she thought she was singing Mussorgsky; and Marc Barrard, who made it, in the end, Golaud’s show, though my neighbour thought he could have let go more in his outbursts of anger.

I say “in the end.” But when at last, after three interminable acts, we were let out for a breather and had drinks and a chat in the foyer, a friend joked that my blog should really be called “We left at the interval.” And as it was obvious things were not going to get any better, we did.

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