Monday, 11 December 2017

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (Berlin, 2017)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Komische Oper, 2017

Jordan de Souza, Barrie Kosky, Jens Larsen, Nadine Weissmann, Dominik Köninger, Günter Papendell, Nadja Mchantaf

OperaVision - 15 October 2017

Proving that he has more than one trick up his sleeve, Barrie Kosky's production of Pelléas et Mélisande for the Komische Oper in Berlin glides along in a minimalist design production on a reduced stage with practically no props at all. Recognising that Pelléas et Mélisande tends to respond better to minimal intervention, Kosky is able even to remove all the familiar symbolism from the work and anything to do with nature, other than perhaps the most important aspect of it as far as this opera is concerned - human nature. But it's not all take, and Kosky has other ways of giving something else to the work that does succeed in bringing out its essential characteristics.

Primarily however, as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing anyone can do that can bring anything more to Pelléas et Mélisande than Debussy's music, and the real success of this production lies in the ravishing performance that Jordan de Souza, the new Kapellmeister of the Komische Oper Berlin, brings out of the house orchestra. The shimmering beauty and flow of the work is all there, but that suggests hazy impressionism and actually there is beautiful clarity and detail brought out of individual instruments and groups of instruments here, as well as a fully expressed dynamic - particularly to the instrumental interludes - that occasionally made it feel like you were hearing passages for the first time.

Listening to the conductor talk about his approach to the work in the interval feature, it's clear that he has a profound understanding of the workings and merit of Debussy's score, but I think it also comes out that there is a strong collaboration with Barrie Kosky that ensures that there is a strong connection between the orchestra pit and what takes place on the stage. Kosky is able to reflect the dynamic in the musical performance on the stage, and the means by which he achieves that - within the context of a minimal set design - is very interesting indeed.

Kosky cites Edgar Allan Poe's blend of horror and eroticism as a reference for Pelléas et Mélisande and it's an unusual but valid comparison. Rather than head in the direction of gothic melodrama however, Kosky takes a much less obvious route to express those characteristics. The set throughout is nothing more than a recessed set of framing borders that reduce the stage down into a claustrophobic cave. The oppressiveness of the set becomes more apparent later in the work when there are more characters all crammed together at the back of the stage, where a revolving panel brings characters onto and off the stage.

Elsewhere, the characters enter and leave by gliding around on the revolving sections of the stage. They never seem to walk on or walk off, but once on the stage are able to move around a little more freely, except when they can't; which amounts to the kind of volition they have and control over their actions and lives at any given time. In terms of movement and position, everything is relational to the geometric patterns of the stage, and within that human nature in Pelléas et Mélisande is something of a chaotic element, even as it flows gracefully in time with Debussy's score.

It's in such subtle contrasts that Kosky seeks to bring out the gothic horror of Pelléas et Mélisande, but it's not entirely hands-off, and there are subtle shifts of emphasis that are applied. Some feel random and designed to do nothing more than jar with your impressions and preconceptions (such as Mélisande swallowing her ring rather than drop it into the Blind Man's Well); others however are perfectly acceptable interpretations of the suggestive and ambiguous undercurrents that lie within the work and which exert such fascination. Sometimes Kosky works with the moods and other times against them, just to see how the opera responds, and it does prove to be extraordinarily responsive to the slightest of touches and shading. Pelléas et Mélisande is that kind of work.

Despite conventional psychological exploration being largely replaced by suggestion and symbolism, there is actually a great deal of leeway in how these enigmatic characters can be interpreted and in how they interact. While it's often possible for Golaud to be the central figure of the work and even a sympathetic character, Kosky directs Günter Papendell towards a more aggressive Golaud in this production. He manhandles Mélisande quite brutally and kicks her when she is pregnant, soon after Arkel is seen creepily pawing over her. The suggestion is that Mélisande later miscarries in a bloody manner that is far from the quiet deathbed conclusion you usually find in this opera.

Golaud and Arkel's behaviour is contrasted with a Pelléas and Mélisande who play up to nature of their childlike games ('jeux d'enfants'), or at least initially. Whether that develops into something more erotically charged or whether that is a projection of Golaud's fevered mind is always an ambiguous matter, and it remains so here even as it is vividly depicted. The singing performances are outstanding, distinct and expressive, with a similar clarity and precision that can be found in the orchestration. When you hear the voices and music performed in this way, the miraculous unique quality of Debussy's approach to opera is all the more evident and impressive.

Links: Komische Oper, OperaVision