Simon Keenlyside Leads an Impressive Vienna Cast in Pelléas et Mélisande

AustriaAustria Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande: Soloists, Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Martin Schebesta), Vienna State Opera Orchestra / Alain Altinoglu (conductor). Vienna State Opera, 18.6.2017. (MB)

Mélisande (Olga Bezsmertna) & Pelléas (Adrian Eröd) (c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn)


Arkel – Franz-Josef Selig
Geneviève – Bernarda Fink
Pelléas – Adrian Eröd
Golaud – Simon Keenlyside
Mélisande – Olga Bezsmertna
Yniold – Maria Nazarova
Doctor – Marcus Pelz
Pelléas’s father – Andreas Bettinger


Director, Set designs & Lighting – Marco Arturo Marelli
Costumes – Dagmar Niefind
Assistant set designer – Silke Bauer
Assistant costume designer – Anna-Sophie Lienbacher

Debussy is like Gluck. No, of course he is not; he would have been mortally offended had you told him so. Indeed, Debussy regarded Gluck as having been responsible for killing off Ramellian opera, delivering a lethal injection of Teutonic poison to a flourishing genre. What does not kill you makes you stronger, of course, as Debussy himself would, on a good day, have attested concerning Wagner at least – and certainly in Pelléas et Mélisande. But to return to Debussy and Gluck, their operas do, it seems to me, have something very important in common, or at least their reception does. Pelléas and Gluck’s reform operas are esteemed by all those who take opera seriously as drama, and disdained or simply ignored by many for whom opera means something else. Their admittedly very different aesthetics are quite clear, moreover, that playing to the gallery is the last thing in which musical drama should be engaging. True, there are occasional hangovers in Gluck, although they should not be exaggerated, but there is not a single case in Debussy’s sole completed opera.

Moreover, what Debussy said, in his article, ‘Pourquoi j’ai écrit Pelléas,’ could be taken, with a little adjustment, for what Gluck was trying to do in his great reforming works (even if, yes, we know the Preface to Alceste was written by his librettist, Calzabigi). Debussy explicitly praised the symbolism of Maeterlinck’s play, which might seem to be – and indeed is – a very different thing, but, ‘despite its dream-like atmosphere’, he was drawn to it because it ‘contains far more humanity than those so-called “real-life documents”’. Like Wagner, a mediating influence between the two in certain ways, myth was the thing. And somewhat like Wagner, if not so much like Gluck, Debussy thrived on ‘an evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and into the décor orchestral’. Those of us who love it shake our heads in bafflement at its neglect. Perhaps, though, just perhaps, there is something to be said for every performance remaining a special event – just as with, say, Iphigénie en Tauride. If an opera made it on to the list of works Boulez conducted it is, after all, an unquestionable sign of quality.

Is, then, this new production from the Vienna State Opera able to live up to such expectations? (I shall pass over less quickly than I probably should a tired and emotional British tourist I overheard during the interval, boasting of having fallen asleep in such a ‘boring’ opera. ‘Can’t they just get it on?’) Musically, yes, and the production did not do too badly either; I have certainly seen much worse. (I shudder to recall the most recent, which is not to say very recent at all, production Covent Garden brought in.) Marco Arturo Marelli’s staging makes an effort, is clearly the result of consideration concerning the drama and what is going on, or what we might think is going on. If I am not entirely convinced that everything coheres, if I think that perhaps a stronger single, even if partial, line might have worked better, there is enough to make one think – and, yes, feel.

In what seems to me a relatively bold move, more unusual than you might think, there is a general sense of Ibsen, of bourgeois drama: not just the costumes, but the internalised, familial – and extra-familial – claustrophobia. It is not, perhaps, how one initially thinks of, or feels, the work, but it is an interesting standpoint that certainly has things to tell us. Pelléas’s father is seen on stage, initially in bed, but actually becoming more of a real dramatic character when his illness lifts. When Arkel has Mélisande kiss him, the other old man joins them, and there is something discomfitingly paedophiliac to the whole, strange episode. Whether it quite fits with the rest of what we see and hear is another matter; the attribution of darker desires to Arkel, at least in that particular case, is becoming a little clichéd by now. An important, indeed the important, focal point to much of the action is a boat. Not only do Pelléas and Mélisande go sailing in it, Mélisande lies in it when she sings her extraordinary song; it becomes the ladder Yniold climbs; Golaud hurls it away in jealous anger; and, in the strange ending, Mélisande sails away in it with womenfolk seemingly transformed from servants into spirits. Again, the almost Lohengrin­-like (although not in gender!) conclusion intrigues, and offers an important contrast with the important stage roles played earlier by Golaud’s henchmen, who clearly threaten Pelléas during their walk. But the bright skied conclusion sits a bit oddly, again, with the rest. Is it just death? If so, would it not, especially in this context, be better just to leave it as death? Marelli’s staging is at least having one ask such questions, although I found the 2015 Munich production from Christiane Pohle – universally and, to my mind, quite bafflingly condemned – a stronger, more coherent treatment, hauntingly provocative in its Beckettian inheritance.

Perhaps, however, I am wrong, for, in an interesting programme interview, conductor Alain Altinoglu, having acknowledged – and how could one not? – the darkness in the piece, describes the story as a ‘path from darkness to light’. Perhaps. I suppose there is something to be said for that musically, and Altinoglu certainly imparted a Lohengrin-without-the-tragedy sense to the conclusion. More importantly, he judged the ebb and flow, the colours and the shadows, very well indeed. Those raw Wagnerian moments made their Tristanesque and Parsifalian points, not only musically, but the phrases, the paragraphs, and indeed the nature of the musical language quite rightly developed differently too. The playing drawn from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic in all but name) was quite outstanding, colours shifting as imperceptibly as the ebb, the non-ebb, the flow and the non-flow, of the drama – and non-drama.

With no disrespect intended to the rest of the cast, a particular cause of interest here lay in Simon Keenlyside’s transition from Pelléas to Golaud. He managed it as expertly as you might imagine – if anything more so. The jealousy, the vulnerability, the flawed masculinity, and the way with both the French language and the specific quality of Debussy’s lines: all were there, as if he had been performing the role all his life. Keenlyside is not one, of course, only to concentrate on his own part, so in a sense one might argue that earlier performances had helped prepare him, but this was a splendid achievement by any standards. Adrian Eröd made for a well-contrasted Pelléas: again, clearly flawed, but more mysteriously so. As with all of the cast, the style of vocal delivery was spot on: doubtless testament both to individual artistry and to Altinoglu’s overall control. As Mélisande, Olga Bezsmertna judged the fine balance between wide-eyed ingénue and the merely annoying with great skill, the competing demands of character development and character stasis equally well balanced. I am not sure that I had heard Franz-Josef Selig in French repertoire before; his wise humanity shone through just as clearly, if, appropriately, with a different touch of ambiguity, as if he had been singing Gurnemanz or Sarastro. I often tend to forget how small the role of Geneviève actually is, so important is she to the drama. Bernarda Fink nevertheless shone, in the most un-showy of ways. My preference for a treble Yniold is not ideological, and in practice, it can go horribly wrong. Nevertheless, I find, on stage, a woman impersonating a child like this a bit odd (especially when I have known it done otherwise). Yniold here had a considerably greater, more peculiar role than usual: hyperactive, damaged, and very interestingly, consoling Golaud at the close and preventing him from taking his life. Maria Nazarova did an excellent job at all of that. This is no criticism of her performance as such, but I wish I had not been made to think of Janette ‘Wee Jimmy’ Krankie.

Mark Berry

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