Cambreling and Melisande: Debussy Enchants in Madrid

SpainSpain C.Debussy, Pelleas et Melisande: Soloists, Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, Coro Intermezzo. Sylvain Cambreling (conductor), Teatro Real de Madrid, 31.10.2011 (JMI)

Production: Salzburg Festival and Paris National Opera

Direction: Robert Wilson
Co-direction: Giuseppe Frigeni
Sets and Lighting: Robert Wilson
Costumes: Frida Parmeggiani

Pelleas: Yann Beuron
Melisande: Camilla Tilling
Golaud: Laurent Naouri
Arkel: Franz-Josef Selig
Genevieve: Hillary Summers
Yniold: soloist from the Tölz Boys’ Choir
Doctor: Jean-Luc Ballestra

Picture courtesy Teatro Real, © Javier del Real

After the greatly successful Elektra that opened the Teatro Real’s season (read S&H review here), I was very curious to see what the popular reaction to this more difficult opera by Debussy would be. No question Pelleas et Melisands—which some critics have labeled an ‘anti-opera’—is one of the great masterworks in the history of music, but even less so than Elektra, it is not the kind of music that many in the (Spanish) audience are used to. Pelleas was last performed at the Teatro Real in January 2002 where the audience gave an more enthusiastic reception to the artists than this time… for which I think there are some good reasons.

The 1997 production is by Robert Wilson and premiered in Salzburg in 1997.It was comissioned by Gerard Mortier back then, and nothing more natural for him than to recycle it now in Madrid. No doubt that Robert Wilson is one of the great theater directors of the last 25 years, with an immediately recognizable style. Wilson is always faithful to himself and he uses the same ingredients over and over again—ingredients that are well known to opera lovers by now. Minimalist sets, mostly figurative, and a few props at the most; timeless costumes with long robes and the particular focus of fine lighting, where Mr. Wilson is a true magician. The characters act as real masks with slow-motion movements and peculiar hand positions, almost completely eliminating any physical contact between the characters. What happens on stage is mostly artificial and figurative. With these ingredients the result can be attractive, but it gets too reiterative when you have seen a few other Wilson opera productions. Let’s be kind and say Wilson’s productions are the caviar of opera-direction. But eat too much of it, or too often, and even caviar can become tiresome.

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C.Debussy, Pelleas et Melisande,
P.Boulez / Welsh National Opera
Archer, Hagley et al.

In the previous Pelleas at Teatro Real Armin Jordan conducted and he did a splendid job. This time Gerard Mortier resorted to Sylvain Cambreling, one of his go-to conductors. A felicitous choice: Mr. Cambreling reading was most convincing, full of delicacy, fluidity, and emotion, especially in the second part of the opera. Pelleas et Melisande this season and Saint François d’Assise in July (review here) have been both exceptional performances by Sylvain Cambreling with excellent results from the orchestra, which has come a long way during the last year or so.

The cast, alas, did not outshine the crew from 2002: Simon Keenlyside and Maria Bayo were two exceptional protagonists of the opera then. I can not say the same about Yann Beuron and Camilla Tilling and I’ll try to explain:

Pelleas can be sung by a tenor or by lyric baritone. Important is to have a great artist, able to express his feelings and emotions. Simon Keenlyside fully succeeded in 2002. Yann Beuron, with sufficient but insignificant voice, does not play in the Champions League. At least he was a sensible, if rather modest Pelleas.

Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling was a superb Melisande from almost all points of view. She has a pleasant voice, an attractive and fragile figure, and puts both to good use, with and a couple extra helpings of emotion. Happiness can never be complete and therefore there must be a drawback: Her voice is tiny, one the smallest around and so she became inaudible more than once—without fault on the orchestra’s part.

Laurent Naouri was a good interpreter of Golaud. He offered a convincing performance, although his voice can be a little rough sometimes and his top notes are unremarkable at best. As in 2002 German bass Franz-Josef Selig sang the part of Arkel, who offered one of his finest performances that I can remember. He is no longer at his prime, but when he puts everything he has got, he’s capable of an absolutely enthralling performance.

In the supporting roles I must mention first of all the top-notch chorister singing Yniold. As a member of the Tölzer Knabenchor, he just about comes with a quality-guaranty for when a theatre absolutely has to put a child to sing on stage. Hillary Summers was a well suited Genevieve and Jean-Luc Ballestra was a good doctor.

José Mª Irurzun