Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande
(Music drama in five acts and thirteen scenes)
Libretto by Maurice Maeterlink after his play
Chorus and Orchestra of the
Lyon Opera conducted by John Eliot Gardiner
ARTHAUS DVD 100 100
Subtitles in English and German [147
François Le Roux
One quickly comes to recognise a too-rigid formula in the presentation of
Arthaus DVD videos. The booklet notes follow a pattern. First comes a note
about the composer that always begins with his date and place of birth and
ends with the date and place of his death. Then comes a historical note about
the opera's development and first performance(s) followed by an act-by-act
synopsis of the drama and biographical notes about the conductor and the
I mention all this because this tendency towards inflexibility works against
this particular production. The drama's synopsis is a literal description
of Maeterlinck's story, as transposed to the opera, set in a medieval,
legendary time. Now, given that it is heavy with symbolism, that much is
left to the imagination, much is intangible, enigmatic and dream-like - perhaps,
even nightmarish, the booklet notes do not make any attempt to explain the
producer's concept. For this Pelléas is in modern dress. The set is
very simplistic: a vast open chequered floor dominating, with a few props
- an armchair, a wicker chair and a table - little else. To the right there
is a line of columns, decorated near their base so that one might (just)
imagine tree trunks for the first act forest setting. Doors open at various
times to let in the sun or moonlight.
So without any such guidance one has to make a leap of the imagination -
up another level. In Act I, for instance, the set I have described remains
unaltered. You see no spring and no Mélisande beside it - you just
hear her voice. At the end a figure appears (he turns out to be the servant
in the succeeding acts) who leads a disquieted Golaud away. You wonder; is
Golaud imagining it all? Has he gone mad? Is the producer intending us to
think that there is a loop in time and that Golaud is 'seeing' all this after
the tragedy of Pelléas and Mélisande's death?
Again, in Act III, for instance, one wonders about the producer's idea of
the sanity of Yniold. The servant/shepherd looks askance at the little boy
as he expresses concern for the lost (?) sheep as he reads from a book (in
Maeterlinck's story, and presumably in the original stage production, he
is out in the open and actually seeing the sheep although Maeterlinck's symbolism
is clear enough. Again, more prosaically, there are other smaller irritations.
On a number of occasions, for instance, the libretto makes reference to Golaud's
beard - yet José van Dam is clean-shaven.
I found all this disconcerting, distracting and intruding upon the enjoyment
of the music, for this is a good performance. Van Dam's Golaud is
the highlight - he is a powerfully persuasive, anguished and tormented by
his doubts and jealousy. Colette Alliot-Lugaz is a fine Mélisande.
She has that far-way, fragile and innocent beauty so essential to the part.
Her Act III duet with Pelléas as she leans out of the castle window
so that Pelléas can caress her hair (not so in this production they
merely sit/lie together) is most beautifully sung. François Le
Roux is equally convincing, finely and plaintively expressive as the
young and innocent (?) Pelléas.
Of all operas, surely Pelléas et Mélisande is
ideally served by the gramophone? The listener can let their imagination
run free, free of the distractions of too-clever-by-far productions such
as these. I would draw readers attention to Karajan's fine 1979 recording
reissued by EMI in 1999 in their Great Recordings of the century series (EMI
5 67057 2). A review of this set appears
in our November 1999 reviews pages.
Peter Woolf adds:
This is a very peculiar first DVD production of Pelléas et
Mélisande. Pierre Strosser takes responsibility for
the set designs and stage direction, and Patrice Cauchetier for the
modern dress. As commonly with Arthaus DVDs (and some opera house programmes
too) there is no discussion of what lies behind the production, which is
far from self-evident. It seems to be (possibly) filmed on the stage of the
Opera National de Lyon, but there is neither audience nor orchestra in
sight - so maybe it was all taken to a TV studio? If it is dubbed, that is
Visually it is a disaster, though pretty to look at, especially in close-ups,
sometimes. The indoor setting (no cave or pond, naturally) and the gestures
imposed on the protagonists negate the crucial specifics of the text at every
turn, that being emphasised by the detailed subtitles. We never see what
we read is happening. People avoid looking at each other in scenes of love
or conflict. If it makes you think, as presumably is the aim, all that you
can come up with tends to be trite and trivial. It is not that one cannot
live with less than literal productions of opera, given a powerful directorial
imagination (see the S&H review of
Mélisande at ENO).
But the paradox is that musically it is a splendid performance, and the acting
too (especially in the poignant and harrowing confrontations) is excellent,
provided you can (from time to time) ignore the irrelevant and contradictory
stage on which they all have to perform all the time, with little help from
lighting or camera.
Ian Lace, with whom I am totally in agreement, found Golaud the central
character; he usually steals the show from the young couple and perhaps his
name should be that of the opera? The grandfather and mother of the tragic
brothers are well taken, and Mélisande is delightful in her remote,
frail vulnerability. John Eliot Gardiner conducts an urgent, dramatic
account of the imperishable score and the balances are good. One is tempted
to switch the vision off but this is impossible; one is drawn back to the
body language and expressive acting, within its prescribed confinement, and
to follow the extraordinary Maeterlink text, savouring the French, whilst
following in English phrase by phrase. It is a divisive, schizoid experience,
and cannot possibly be recommended as a first choice.
Le Roux has become well known in UK in opera (Birtwistle's Gawain)
and recital; Alliot-Lugaz less so. I believe I wrote some of the first reviews
of Le Roux and his regular pianist Jeff Cohen in a series of CDs for REM
Editions of Lyon, and hailed his arrival as a successor to Gerard Souzay.
Try to hear the three of them together in Mélodies françaises
en duo, a thoroughly enjoyable and happy selection of Fauré, Duparc,
Massenet, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Gounod, Lalo, Satie, Poulenc, Chausson &
Bizet REM 311086 (1989).
Peter Grahame Woolf