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Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande: new production. Soloists of the Opéra National de Montpellier, piano and musical direction, Anne Pagés Boisset; Opéra Comédie, Montpellier, France. 22.5.2008 (MM)

The tale of Melisand, husband Golaud and her lover Pelleas is not very interesting, really a fairly common bourgeoise domestic situation. Debussy's telling of this banal story is however one of the great operatic masterpieces. Debussy's dark drama exploits the natural and emotional atmospheres and landscapes offered by Maeterlinck's symbolist play about love's fatal attractions, greatly refining the sonorities of the post-Romantic orchestra and challenging the technical resources of twentieth century stagecraft. Well, it was 1902 and one presumes Paris' Opera Comique was a state-of-the-art theater as Paris was the world's state-of-the-arts city.

The Opéra de Montpellier came up with the questionable idea of staging Pelléas et Mélisande as a mise-en-espace (costumes, platforms, lights, no scenery and a bare minimum of props (a pail of water, a knife, two chairs and for Mélisande's death a skeletal cot), and staging it to Debussy's piano score, created between 1893 and 1895. Debussy did not orchestrate Pelléas et Mélisande until 1901 when he was assured of its mise-en-scène at the Opéra Comique for which he added its magnificent orchestral interludes to accommodate time needed for scenic transformations. But a fascinating idea, Montpellier's exploration of the primal moments of this theatrical masterpiece.

Piano previews of Pelléas et Mélisande
 were offered in the poet Mallarmé's salon, an intimate platform for exploring the depths of symbolist thought, and in which, apparently, the new art of photography was among discussions. There exists in fact a photo of Debussy at a small piano à droit (an upright) with whom one can imagine singers not accomplished enough to sing at Paris' various opera houses but musically accomplished enough to gather around the piano to satisfy the demands of the avant-garde (here coping with Debussy's experimental, vocally quite un-operatic narrative).

These were not the resources at Montpellier Opéra Comedie where three extraordinary opera singers were the primary players in this salon tragedy, where a sizeable platform thrust itself deeply into the auditorium, where sophisticated lighting instruments were visible and where an imposing Hamburg Steinway concert piano sat at the side of the thrust stage. Intimate yes, by current operatic standards though hardly a salon, and most of all an exquisitely exciting theatrical space.

To stage the opera Montpellier chose Jean-Yves Courrégelongue, a metteur en scène who has made a career assisting others, notably Peter Sellars, Patrice Chéreau and Montpellier's artist-in-residence Jean Paul Scarpitta, directors of ultimate theatrical sophistication. Sophistication was indeed apparent, as was preparation, good sense and solid technique.. Without a specific scenic context and without orchestral colors, Courrélongue's players emerged in high relief. He had had only their movements to embody Debussy's symbolism and did so effectively with abstract actions (Golaud staring forward, Melisande far behind him in the initial forest encounter), abstract placement (Pelléas and Mélisande standing off either side of the thrust platform for the final, and fateful declaration of love), abstract tableaux (Golaud, defeated, yet still in supplication of the truth from the dead Melisande). But at rare times too all stage action was suppressed, the players in simple explication of the text as lieder singers.

Mr. Courrégelongue attempted to integrate the idea of photography into his concept, pounding it home in the delicate scene where Yniold regards the fearful lambs headed perhaps to slaughter. His primitive camera projects small cloud images onto a scrim, asking or telling us to reconcile photography to symbolism when we had plenty of other things on our minds, like Debussy's opera. This problematic role, Yniold, was taken by an adolescent girl, allowing the player to assume musical and dramatic complexities beyond the reach of a younger singer, if compromising Maeterlinck's inherent naturalism.

In keeping with the conceit of primitive photography the color palate of Silver Sentimenti's costumes were gray color tones, blacks and whites, in turn of the century shapes, perhaps updated in the case of Pelléas to what Americans recognize as the Great Gatsby (specifically Robert Redford as F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 hero). This interesting if over-specific image burdened Pelléas
with precise meanings which possibly clashed with the vague shadows of Maeterlinck's symbolist world. The players were in fact very often dark silhouettes in front of the blank luminous zinc plate scrim provided by the ultra-minimalist decors of Mathieu Dupuy. At times this scrim was covered with hazy abstract, sometimes blinking black and white dotted shapes, projections created by Carolina Suarez that distracted from rather than artfully penetrated Maeterlinck's abstract natural world.

The gaunt Golaud of black voiced Laurent Alvaro dominated the stage, relentlessly, uselessly struggling, the Mélisande of Marie-Adeline Henry seemed more resolute and more natural than the usual ephemeral Debussy heroine, the Pelléas of Ivan Geissler was perhaps the ideal Debussy hero, lyrical and slight and frustrating in his passivity. All are finished singing actors pursuing interesting careers. Finally, Courrégelongue succeeded in keeping Debussy's players as philosophical figments rather than troubled, rather uninteresting humans, rendering his quite effective crescendo to the lengthy denouement an explosion of ideas moreso that an exposition of over-wrought, operatic emotions.

Pelléas et Mélisande
  comes early in the Debussy oeuvre (as does Clair de la lune as example), the great piano works coming from his late period. Thus perhaps one must not expect Debussy's score to be one of his pianistic monuments. It does however have the responsibility of creating Debussy's musical continuum, the center of his symbolist poetic and in fact the substance of his opera far more than are the banalities of its verbal narrative. Alas, the careful, too soft piano playing of Anne Pagès-Boisset seldom rose above accompaniment to this narrative,  leaving us aching for real musical involvement and at least the few or even the many wrong notes that might inevitably result. The pianist is most certainly the protagonist of this proto-Pelléas et Mélisande. May one imagine such a project with a real collaborative pianist. Michel Béroff and Peter Serkin come to mind, and a host of others. One hopes there is a next time, and soon.

Said and done, only to add that Mr. Courrégelongue's staging of the bows was a pretentious mess, a sloppy ending to a slick afternoon.

Michael Milenski

Picture ©
Opéra National de Montpellier

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