Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande is a sport. True, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is an influence with its naturalistic setting of language and the Frenchman may have known Dargomyzhsky's The Stone Guest with its thinly accompanied recitative style.
Debussy had been thinking about writing a new kind of of opera for years: music begins where the word finishes. It must emerge from the shadows. Music is insolently predominant. There is too much singing. Musical setting is too heavy. Extended development does not fit, cannot fit, the words.
All this three years before Pelléas, finished around 1902 the date of the premiere in Paris, a premiere that baffled; although it intrigued many, and the last performances in the run at the Opera Comique actually made a profit.
The new production is botched scenically. As so often these days the musicians fall over backwards to do what is in the correctly what is in the score; and the production villains fall over backwards to show us what is not in the score or the libretto. This is a joint production so Covent Garden 's opera director the usually expert and knowledgeable Elaine Padmore no doubt saw it in Salzburg. So why did she bring over a production that was utterly against anything that would win the approval of critics and many of the audience? I suppose that her answer might be, that she had booked Sir Simon Rattle to conduct and a near-perfect cast.
Mélisande is usually a blonde with long hair, dressed in pastel shades or grey; here she is a brunette with shortish hair and wearing a dark red dress. For contrast everybody else is dressed in clowns' clothing which makes their bums look big in them. What the connection is, goodness knows.
It was during rehearsals for the premiere that the stage director asked for more music to cover the scene changes. Sometimes a conductor (John Eliot Gardiner, for example) has decided that Debussy's first thoughts were best and has omitted those orchestral interludes. But that is to miss some of the most beautiful and profound moments in the score, for they express psychological insight into the characters and events in the work (and they almost certainly led to similar interludes in Wozzeck, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Peter Grimes, highlights in Berg, Shostakovich and Britten).
Mélisande is named after a character in another Maeterlinck play Ariane et Barbebleue, turned into an opera by Dukas, in which she is one of Bluebeard's wives (which is how she came by the crown that features in Debussy's first scene). Now we know that Mélisande is good at evading questions but how did she evade being killed by Bluebeard ? The character can be portrayed as totally fey or straightforward and a bit sly; Angelika Kirchschlager, the Austrian soprano favoured the latter approach and carried it out in a convincing way, a singing actress of stature.
Two of our finest baritones play Pelléas and Golaud, the half-brothers; Simon Keenlyside copes with the high lying part, is a superb, communicating performer of the highest quality, the best I have seen in the part. He says that he is getting long in the tooth for Pelléas and this was his last per6rmance in the role (May 25) but let us devoutly hope he changes his mind. Gerald Finley as the sad victim of jealousy and great provocaion will no doubt be even better in five years time but is already very fine.
Earlier I said the singing/acting was near perfect; so is anything missing ? The voice of experience says 'yes': mature character in the voice: I am thinking of Söderström's charisma as Mélisande or Jose Van Dam's as Golaud. Robert Lloyd's present portrayal of the old King Arkel had that quality of ripe maturity that the rest of the cast must strive toward.
Curiously enough, there is not a single French singer in the line-up. Now we English do not always have great love for the French but let any foreigner maul the French language about and we are up in arms. One must be able to hear the difference between e grave, e aigu and plain e; here at the Jardin de Couvent everything seemed en place.
The orchestra is a protagonist in this opera and no praise is too high for the playing, virtuosity, balance, power, passion, elegance, Sir Simon Rattle coaxed the players into the spirit of the work. It could not have been better. The big interlude in Act Four was moving, thrilling, overwhelming.
One or two of the stage pictures were eloquent but on the whole the director Stanislas Nordey seemed determined to show what a clever fellow he is and put his stanp on the production. Alas, he did. No water, no tower, no tumbling hair, no castle, no sword, all make-believe, Mélisande dies in a chair; the only furniture visible. The sets were cumbersome and had to be laboriously hauled about; they consisted mainly of vast rectangular objects patterned like pencil boxes. There were also some expensive gimmicks: one scene had a wall filled with thirty-eight rreplicas of Mélisande's red dress; the final scene had twenty male dummies. What a mess! Salvaging what is possible from the wreckage, my advice is to listen to the relay on Radio 3 on 9 June.