Tuesday, July 5, 2016


James Karas

Conductor                   Esa-Pekka Salonen
Director                      Katie Mitchell
Set Designer               Lizzie Clachan
Costumes Designer    Chloé Lamford
Lighting                      James Farncombe
Dramaturge                 Martin Crimp

Pelléas                        Stéphane Dégout
Mélisande                   Barbara Hannigan
Golaud                        Laurent Naouri
Arkel                           Franz Josef Selig
Geneviève                   Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Yniold                         Chloé Briot
Doctor                         Thomas Dear

Choir                           Cape Town Opera Chorus
Orchestra                     Philharmonia Orchestra

At the Grand Théâtre de Provence from July 2 to July 16, 2016

***** (out of 5) 
Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a complex opera replete with symbolism, impressionistic music and a mythical world that is somewhat unfamiliar. Director Kate Mitchell has taken all of that and turned it inside out (perhaps more precisely, given us a cross-section view) in a production that is riveting, stimulating and quite confusing.

Mitchell has taken King Arkel (Franz Josef Selig) and the Kingdom of Allemonde with its forest, castle, dark cave, fountain, and tower and transferred them to the modern house of a wealthy gentleman. In the opening scene we see a bride in a well-appointed room with a large bed. She steps out into a hall, a curtain closes the room from our view temporarily, some branches are attached to the bed and the story begins with the beautiful and mysterious Mélisande (Barbara Hannigan) meeting Golaud (Laurent Naouri), the grandson of the king “in the forest.”

Opening scene with Barbara Hannigan as the bride Melisande. Phot: Patrick Berger/Artcomart
We soon realize that there are two Mélisandes. One is the soprano singing the role and there is a duplicate that appears quite frequently. Does Mélisande have a split personality? Is one of them the truthful Mélisande and the other the mendacious one? Is she torn between love for her husband Golaud and love for her Pelléas (Stephane Dégout)? How many other possible explanations are there? More on this later.

The story of the opera is quite simple in bare outline. Golaud and Mélisande meet and marry. She meets Goloud’s brother Pelléas and falls in love with him. Their love is discovered and the inevitable conclusion follows. Well, not quite as far as Debussy and librettist Maurice Maeterlinck are concerned. And things get considerably more complex when Mitchell takes over. 

Golaud, Pelléas, their mother Geneviève (Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo) and Arkel appear in scenes where they are not expected or included in the libretto. When Pelléas and Mélisande go into the dark cave, Mélisande sees three poor people asleep and becomes frightened. The three people in Mitchell’s interpretation are Arkel, Genevieve and Goloud’s son by a previous wife, Yniold (Chloe Briot). Is this her guilty conscience making her see things?

The two Melisandes and Golaud in the death scene. 
There are dozens of fascinating instances like this but I will describe only the death scene. Pelléas and Mélisande go the fountain (in this case a cross section of an empty swimming pool). She undresses to her bra and panties and he wears only underwear. They express their love and as he sits on the floor she puts her legs over him. They are making love and on the point of orgasm, Golaud appears and slashes Pelléas' throat and injures Mélisande.

In the next scene Mélisande is on her deathbed but not from the injury from Golaud. As Mélisande is lying in bed Golaud appears and the “other” Mélisande jumps in his arms. In the meantime, Pelléas or I suppose his ghost appears. The “death” is moving but long with one Mélisande being bathed in light as if she were being transfigured while the other Mélisande is dying in bed. The former one leaves the room and we assume that the latter has died. Wrong. She sits up.

Most of the singing is done by Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud with meritorious contribution by Arkel and lesser quantity by Genevieve and Yniold. Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan takes on the tough role of Mélisande with fearless conviction. She needs a supple and beautiful voice and be mysterious, passionate, mendacious and secretive. A stupendous performance.

Baritone Stéphane Dégout sang an excellent Pelléas, a man confused and confusing like the rest of the characters. The jealous husband Golaud is handled by bass-baritone Laurent Naouri who must show anger and some innocence when he sees childish play instead of the reality of what is happening between his wife and his brother.

Bass Franz-Joseph Selig with his rumbling and well-controlled low notes does an unfailingly good job as Arkel.         

The sets by Lizzie Clachan have the entire action take place in room-size spaces on the stage. They show great versatility in having quick changes made to the basic set by having a curtain pulled over and then back.

The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

With superb performances by the orchestra and the singers, this was Katie Mitchell’s show - imaginative, brilliant, stupendous and confusing. One should see it several times to begin absorbing its wealth of symbolic, psychological and theatrical depth.

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