What a theatrical coup this was for Welsh National
Opera. They managed to secure the services of an artistic team that
is second to none; a conductor who knows this score probably better
than anybody around, and a stage director of thought-provoking intelligence.
Indeed, as Peter Stein had proved with his marvellous earlier WNO production
of Otello, he manages to get to the emotional core of the drama
while getting opera singers (not always noted for their acting subtlety)
to perform with real truth and conviction. All this is beautifully demonstrated
in this movingly intense production of Debussy’s only completed opera,
Pelléas et Mélisande, by any standards one of the
most important stage works of the 20th Century.
I have long known this production, having seen the
original on stage and having then taped the subsequent television broadcast.
It is good to have it on DVD at last, the sharper picture quality and
full-bodied sound adding to the enjoyment. It was filmed in the empty
theatre, so close-ups, camera angles and microphone placing were all
well thought-out and not subject to the problems of a truly ‘live’ production.
I always liked the scene linking device for TV, thought up by Boulez,
of closing in on the appropriate page of the orchestral score, following
for a few seconds and then dissolving into the stage action.
Stein is well known for his meticulous work with the
singers, as Boulez is for his care with the score. The result has an
effortless fluidity, textual clarity and attention to the smallest detail
without losing the bigger picture. Stein and his set designer, Karl-Ernst
Herrmann (a colleague from the Schaubühne in Berlin) have ingeniously
overcome the many staging hurdles the opera presents, so that scenes
flow from one to another without distraction or any loss of crucial
atmosphere. Though the production might be described as ‘naturalistic’
(and therefore mercifully free of any post-modern ‘conception’), it
has been paired down to the bare essentials to suggest each setting.
Thus, the difficult transition from the castle room to the well in the
park in Act 4 is achieved without feeling we have really moved – interior
and exterior begin to merge as one. This points up the symbolically
‘interior’ nature of the drama, a drama of the night and soul played
from within. Lighting is crucial to this, and Jean Kalman creates a
background of subtle half-lights, suggestive shafts of colour, and a
shadowy gloom that is all pervasive. Against this ‘canvas’, the characters
move, act and dress like Pre-Raphaelites come to life – they could be
straight out of Burne-Jones or Rossetti.
As for the musical side, Boulez makes sure the Wagnerian
web of tone-colours is carefully balanced against Debussy’s revolutionary
orchestral refinement, as well as making the most of the hypnotic power
of the melodic sung-speech. The orchestra plays superbly for him, and
the cast are clearly inspired to give of their best. Alison Hagley makes
a suitably girlish Mélisande (not always easy for mature sopranos)
and Neill Archer a light and compelling Pelléas. Their moments
together have a beautifully balanced naivete that culminates in the
famous duet, where Debussy effectively de-Wagnerises himself by having
the climactic ‘je t’aime’ sung softly and unaccompanied. The pivotal
role of Golaud is sung by veteran Donald Maxwell with a mixture of suppressed
violence and bewilderment that entirely convinces. All other supporting
parts are well played and sung, a special mention being appropriate
for Samuel Burkey, who makes a heart-breaking (though never sentimental)
So full marks for the artistic side of the transfer
to DVD. Unfortunately, the apparent avarice of DG means that the opera
comes on two discs. With a running time of 158 minutes, this is simply
not necessary (a recent Il Trovatore, running to 172 minutes
with extras, is easily accommodated on one disc). Collectors are being
‘milked’ for a desirable issue, which is unfair. It’s not as if the
extras here amount to much – all we get is a promotional trailer for
other products, and a ‘picture gallery’ of rehearsal stills. If we could
have been given actual footage of Stein and Boulez rehearsing cast and
orchestra, that may have been something special. As it is, one feels
slightly cheated, especially as the real advantages of the new medium
have not been fully exploited.
All in all, one can only conclude that this is a ‘must
have’ for lovers of this masterpiece, but buyers can feel rightly aggrieved
at having to pay over the odds.