Pelléas et Mélisande in Helsinki

FinlandFinland  Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande: Finnish National Opera, Mikko Franck (conductor), Helsinki, 9.4.2012 (GF)

Director, Sets & Lighting Marco:  Arturo Marelli
Costumes:  Dagmar Niefind

Pelléas:  Topi Lehtipuu
Mélisande:  Angelika Kirchschlager
Golaud:  François Le Roux
Arkel:  Jyrki Korhonen
Geneviève:  Sari Nordqvist
Yniold:  Mia Heikkinen
The Doctor:  Jussi Merikanto
Pelléas’ Father:  Hannu Tuomi

Pelléas et Mélisande Photo © Finnish National Opera, Heikki Tuuli

Premiered on March 23rd, this was the fourth performance of a production which from the very first second seemed extremely well-conceived and well-rehearsed. Possible loose ends visible at the premiere had been sorted out and the outcome was a beautiful and seamless drama unfolding – just as seamlessly as the music itself. I will not pretend that Pelléas et Mélisande has ever been a favourite opera of mine, but this production managed to win me over completely. The press release a few weeks before the premiere made rather a big deal of the stage being filled with 30,000 litres of water, but there was nothing gimmicky about it. Rather, it felt totally natural and I believe that both Maeterlinck and Debussy would have approved of the idea. The water and the white rowing-boat became corner-stones in the development of the tragedy until the very end when a lifeless Mélisande, lying in the boat, was slowly pushed out of sight by six young women in flowery dresses. Imaginative lighting and clever employment of the total stage area further contributed to the strong sense of unity. This production must be the closest ever to the Gesamtkunstwerk Wagner envisaged, and which was also Debussy’s ideal. A triumph for Marco Arturo Marelli in his triple function as director, set and lighting designer.

One could almost add a fourth function to this list: acting coach. Of course it is the director’s task to give clear instructions on how to move, where to look, what to do, but far too frequently directors leave this up to the performers, which more often than not results in a rambling performance. Here it seemed that every movement and every gesture was organically adjusted to the drama and the individual characters. Marelli was fortunate to have a group of artists ideally suited to their roles and willing immerse themselves in their characters. Vocally, this brought them as close to the ideal as can be justifiably expected. Three internationally acclaimed singers in the three central roles were magnificently complemented by a handful of the National Opera’s regular ensemble. Mia Heikkinen was a wonderfully boyish, eminently credible Yniold. Sari Nordqvist was a Geneviève who occasionally seemed a bit of a caricature, which was presumably intentional. Jussi Merikanto’s doctor was warm and noble, and Jyrki Korhonen, who has sounded a bit worn at times, delivered basso cantabile singing of the highest order.

Tall, slim and boyish – Topi Lehtipuu was the incarnation of one’s ideal Pelléas visually, and his flexible tenor found all the nuances to make this an unforgettable role portrait. By the same token, Angelika Kirchschlager was Mélisande: mysterious, touching and vocally enchanting. On top of all this, the great French baritone François Le Roux was the most insightful and sensitive Goulaud imaginable. Now in his mid-50s, he sings with great authority and possesses all the vocal colours required for this complicated character. In his early career, he was ‘the greatest Pelléas of his generation’ as a critic wrote, but since 1998 he has also earned similar plaudits for his Goulaud, a role he even sang in the centenary performance at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 2002. It was indeed a privilege to experience his reading of the role.

In this opera, the orchestra is a protagonist on the same level as the lead singers. Luminous playing and Central European warmth of tone harnessed with pinpoint precision under Mikko Franck’s watchful eyes made this an unforgettable afternoon. This year is not even half over yet, but I am fairly sure that this Pelléas et Melisande will be on my shortlist for ‘Best Performance of the Year’ come December. Opera lovers should set out on a pilgrimage to Helsinki before the end of April!

Göran Forsling