Claus Guth’s Pelléas and Mélisande, Domestic

GermanyGermany C. Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande: Soloists, Frankfurt Museum & Opera Orchestra, Friedemann Layer (conductor), Frankfurt Opera, 18.11.2012 (JFL)

Direction: Claus Guth
Sets & Costumes: Christian Schmidt
Lighting: Olaf Winter
Dramaturgy: Norbert Abels

Arkel: Alfred Reiter
Pelléas: Christian Gerhaher
Mélisande: Chrstiane Karg
Golaud / Voice of Sheppard: Paul Gay
Geneviève: Hilary Summers
Yniold: Member of the Mainz Cathedral Choir
Doctor: Sungkon Kim

Christian Gerhaher & Christiane Karg in Frankfurt's Pelléas et Mélisande
Picture courtesy Frankfurt Opera, © Monika Rittershaus

There they stand like two lonely snowmen: Christiane Karg’s Mélisande and Christian Gerhaher’s Pelléas at the opera’s end, as if they had never done anything else. And in truth, they hadn’t… such is the strangely intoxicating stasis of Debussy’s only opera.

Pelléas et Mélisande glides along at a tranquil pace on the deep black waters of Debussy’s music, an endless instrumental parlando accompanying the Maurice Maeterlinck text. Christian Gerhaher’s discomfited, hesitant Pelleas is perfect for the part and the Claus Guth’s production. Guth brings the work within smelling-distance of Ibsen’s family dramas. The meticulous set (Christian Schmidt) consists of the shifting and rotating two story manor of King Arkel; clad in the early to mid- 20th century bourgeois sumptuousness that is defined by expensive wallpaper and a few pieces of select wooden furniture. The well scene takes place in the imaginarium of the protagonists, who fled to the nursery upstairs for privacy.

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C.Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande,
R.Kubelik / BRSO & BR Chorus
H.Donath, N.Gedda, D.Fischer-Dieskau et al.

Perennial discomfort, apart from suppressed rage, is Gerhaher’s strong suit… because, one suspects, he doesn’t have to do much acting to summon those emotions. That gives the few and carefully picked rôles he interprets on stage a quietly eerie, unnerving touch that always feels compellingly authentic. The style seemed to rub off on the dynamic Christiane Karg who turned ever further into a character of quiet contemplation, rather than being merely troubled. Together they celebrated a kind of ultra realistic non-chemistry that didn’t tell its love until it was finally spelled out. That meant quite the transformation for Karg, after a first scene where in her encounter with Golaud, Mélisande comes across as rather a junky ex-prostitute. The latter is supposed to spell trauma and vulnerability but it looked too much like culpability and crack. If that was purposeful crudeness, I didn’t discern the dramatic reasoning behind it. Paul Gay’s regal Golaud, sounded a little taxed toward act five, but until then he was sonorous stateliness personified, oozing atmosphere without ever having to try hard. All other characters—Alfred Reiter’s veteran, authentically old Arkel, Hilary Summers’ idiomatic Geneviève, Sungkon Kim’s impeccable doctor—fell by the wayside behind the principal trio of Karg-Gerhaher-Gay.

Golaud’s candelabra-bludgeoning of Pelléas—understandable after built up as slow and excruciating as Fassbiner’s “Why did Herr R. run Amok”—is directed in imitate-slow-motion, a distinctive Guth-touch that he employed to greater effect in his ingenious Salzburg Don Giovanni. Guth’s domestication of Pelléas et Mélisande only enhances the work’s special character, away from mystery and half-enchanted wells. Depending on one’s predisposition that either makes for an extraordinary long three and a half hours of sophisticated drabness, or quiet delight in an kind of artful, inexorable stupor. Amazon’s algorithm would suggest: “If you like Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualitites, you might also like the Frankfurt Opera’s Pelléas et Mélisande.”

That, despite one notable weak spot: The orchestra under Friedemann Layer was solid but unsubtle, rarely added depth or shimmer to the sound, instead opting (or being limited to) a very direct kind of communication.

Jens F. Laurson