Maurice Maeterlick´s symbolist drama "Pelléas et Mélisande" has had singular repercussion on the musicians of its time. It was the inspiration for Claude Debussy´s only completed opera, whose unique style has no precedent (unless you go back to Monteverdian times) as a case of syllabic projection of the text in a continuous recitative-arioso, with just one exception (Mélisande´s very Medieval song). And the music reflects the feelings of the words with uncanny sensibility. It is amazing that the seamless interludes between tableaux were added later, for they form an absolute unity with the sung music that follows them.
Some years ago a wonderful BA Philharmonic concert conducted by Franz Paul Decker contained three scores derived from the play: the incidental music imagined by Fauré and Sibelius, and the immense symphonic poem by Arnold Schoenberg, a masterpiece of late Postromanticism showing the way to atonalism. The great German master has a point of contact with Debussy: they both understood that Maeterlinck´s text needs both Impressionism and Expressionism. They also realized that Golaud is a terrifying psychopath. In Debussy both styles intermingle, and some scenes have a blend of both styles, such as the grotto´s.
Finally premiered in 1902 after long years of preparation, "Pelléas…" has been gradually recognized as a very important opera, but it was never popular and it never will be. It is too exquisite, too rare, the melodies are in the orchestra, feelings are always contained (except for Golaud), there are no arias. The mysteries are many: you never get to know whence Mélisande comes from, who hurt her and it what manner. And is her feeling for Pelléas quite so innocent? Pelléas seems right in wanting to leave, he presages that their love will soon become physical. He is a hesitant, strange young man, with subtle mysteries of his own.
"Pelléas…" had an almost perfect version in 1999, with Jorge Lavelli doing an admirable producing job, and Frederica Von Stade and François Le Roux (as Golaud) references in their roles; Armin Jordan was the very stylish conductor. This year the level at the Colón was a good deal lower. This opera needs intelligent, professional and very sensitive artists; it doesn´t require singers with great vocal virtuosity for the music doesn´t demand it. They also must have good French, for prosodic truth is of the essence.
Two were French: Mélisande was Anne Sophie Duprels, last year´s Manon; Golaud was Marc Barrard (debut, I believe). They both have healthy, pleasant voices, but Duprels remained superficial in her comprehension of the character, never suggesting a shy, complex creature. Golaud was probably marked wrongly by producer Olivia Fuchs (debut) for he shows his violence well before what the text warrants, but otherwise he was convincing, although far from Le Roux´s subtlety. Although I didn´t see Markus Werba as Papageno, I know that he had a success when he sang that role earlier this season. But Pelléas is something else: the singer was extrovert, agile and boyish when he should be introspective and self-doubting. His voice is a pleasant high lyric baritone quite well-used and his French is very good for a Viennese, but he was very far from Pelléas´character.
Kurt Rydl has sung at the Vienna State Opera for more than thirty years and he has been a redoubtable Wagner and R. Strauss singer, but he is now in the declining phase of his career: the voice remains big, but it has lost focus to an alarming degree, and the wide vibrato obliterated the phrases´ contours. He still has a commanding dramatic presence, however. Vera Cirkovic as Geneviève was properly contained and statuary in her reading of Pelléas´ letter. Fabiola Masino, being petite, has the right "physique du rôle" for the boy Yniold (I know that Debussy prefers a child singing it, but I acknowledge the difficulties and accept an adult female soprano) and sang the role well as she did in 1999. Mario De Salvo was a good Physician in the last act.
I was very happy with the playing of the Colón Orchestra and the conducting debut of Emmanuel Villaume: he was exemplary in his respect for the lights and shadows of the score and he showed great perception about both the evanescent impressionist moments and the expressionist outbursts.
I found Olivia Fuchs controversial in several points. I wondered whether the superficiality of both Duprels and Werba wasn´t the producer´s responsibility as well. I found the presence of dancers (doubling as stage helpers) unwarranted, for Debussy asks for no choreography. The evolutions, however, weren´t unpleasant (they were the work of Claire Whistler). And of course the producer leads a team, so the geometric stage elements of designer Yannis Tavoris are part of Fuchs´ views, as are Tavoris´ incongruous (although not ugly) costumes. I have always felt that Maeterlinck´s text evokes the Middle Ages, but the characters were dressed rather as in Debussy´s time. Many important things weren´t suggested by this staging (e.g., the perils of the grotto), and the lighting by Bruno Poet often ran counter to the sense of the words (luminous when it should be shadowy or viceversa). In all, the production fell short of being truthful to this opera.
Indeed, "Pelléas et Mélisande" is an elusive challenge for any producer. Fuchs avoided tastelessness and wasn´t outrageous (as so many of her colleagues are nowadays) but her vision remains incomplete.
For Buenos Aires Herald