Due to its wide range of events the Holland Festival is at times its own competitor. I missed Turan Dokht and the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande because I attended aus LICHT. To visit a performance of Debussy’s first and only opera, I had to skip the concert by the French rapper/writer Abd Al Malik on 12 June. – Cultural ‘choice-stress’, frustrating on the one hand, but a wealth on the other. Was it worth it, you ask? I can’t judge what I missed, but I can sum up four reasons why you should visit the production of Pelléas et Mélisande in the Amsterdam Muziektheater.
A wickerwork of hanging steel pipes suggests the impenetrable forest in which Golaud runs into the lost Mélisande. As soon as the music starts, the rods start to lazily rock together, lit up like a nightly magic forest. They make way for a triangular staircase that functions as the castle of King Arkel. In ever-changing formations the stands also serve as Golaud’s castle, a cave, a pond and the secret meeting place for Pelléas and Mélisande.
Set designer Pierre-André Weitz consistently employs the triangular shape. A simple and effective reference to the difficult relationship between Golaud, his half-brother Pelléas and Mélisande. The mobile, multifunctional scaffolding works rival the breath-taking set design in Stockhausen’s aus LICHT.
The gigantic trapezoidal panels sliding down to form yet another triangle are oppressive. They resemble the axe of a guillotine and presage the tragedy to come. Lighting designer Bertrand Killy makes the suffocating atmosphere even more palpable with bright light accents on an otherwise dark stage. Thus the staging perfectly mirrors the enigmatic atmosphere of Maurice Maeterlinck’s libretto.
In this gloomy setting the protagonists move about in black or grey custom-made costumes. The elegant cut of their three-piece suits is reminiscent of the early twentieth century, when Debussy composed his opera. Mélisande’s virginal white outfits form a sharp contrast with this. Weitz seems to cry out to us that she is innocence incarnate. But when she appears on stage for the first time, she wears a sensual, transparent robe, her nipples and thong visible to all. Perhaps the mysterious girl is less innocent than she seems? Golaud’s son Yniold is also dressed in white, as if he, too, were merely a victim of the circumstances.
The Dutch National Opera has engaged a top cast for this production. The Russian soprano Elena Tsallagova is the ideal Mélisande with her pure, unadorned voice and girlish appearance. She moves one’s heart to the core as a frightened adolescent who is besieged by the older Golaud, as his depressed wife, as a teeny-bopper in love and as a delirious woman who dies in childbirth.
The Irish-American baritone Brian Mulligan is impressive as Golaud. With his sonorous voice and impressive appearance, he gives shape to the diverse aspects of his character. – From a cautious yet horny old buck harassing Mélisande in a #MeToo type of action, to a barish landowner who lets his subjects starve to death. He is as convincing as the jealous husband who kills Pelléas, drags Mélisande by the hair and even on her deathbed interrogates her about possible adultery.
The British bass Peter Rose shines in his role as the half-blind King Arkel. He shows remarkable insight into the troubled relationships between his grandsons Golaud and Pelléas. His compassion and concern for Mélisande are deeply moving. The sovereign tone in which he accepts the fate that deprives him of both her and Pelléas grabs you by the throat. Unfortunately Paul Appleby is a rather bland Pelléas.
Absolutely stunning is Maximilian Leicher of the Tölzer Knabenchor in his role of Yniold. In the first two acts he lovingly leads his great-grandfather Arkel by the arm. Next he obeys his father’s orders to spy on Pelléas and Mélisande with apparent reluctance, nevertheless answering his envious questions in a flawless soprano voice.
In the fourth act he sings a poignant solo full of ominous references to the imminent tragedy. Leicher is a gifted actor and his French is immaculate. The ostentatious boredom with which he hears out the lengthy discussions of the adults in the fifth and final act is contagious.
Debussy’s magical music
‘Prima la musica, dopo le parole’ (first the music, then the words), is the age-old adage for opera. For Debussy, however, they are inextricably linked. Without exception, the vocal lines are syllabic and follow the French accent closely. The absence of coloratura and other typical opera ornamentation creates a pleasant naturalness, the melodic lines are distinctly flowing. This approach is also beneficial to the intelligibility of the text.
Debussy excelled in creating ‘vague, impressionistic’ orchestral and choral parts. Sharply framed melodic contours and strong rhythmic pulses are absent, the harmonies are not based on traditional tonality. Instead of a propelling sense of purpose, Debussy writes music that is in a sense immobile. We can wallow in a bath full of brilliant timbres, larded with beautiful arabesques of woodwinds and brass instruments. When Mélisande sings, we often hear a subtle motif from a harp, traditionally the instrument that symbolises innocence.
This does mean to say that Pelléas et Mélisande is a sugary kind of kitsch. On the contrary, as a true master Debussy creates a magical, elusive atmosphere that wonderfully matches the symbolist story. Under the picturesque surface, disaster is ominously brewing, in low growling bassoons and double basses and softly rumbling timpani. Sudden silences, muted horns and hair-raising brass fanfares intensify the atmosphere of doom and inevitability.
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is audibly familiar with Debussy’s sound world, the musicians intoning their many short solo motifs beautifully and with care. Too bad the orchestra sometimes drowned out the singers. And to my taste, conductor Stéphane Denève could have added just a trifle more French perfume. But these are just minimal comments on an otherwise exemplary production.
Pelléas et Mélisande runs through 27 June. Info and tickets here.