Pelléas and Mélisande in Pieces at the Munich summer Festival

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Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is an opera of disconnections. Mélisande’s first words are, ‘Ne me touchez pas!’ -- ‘Do not touch me!’ And, indeed, she (and everyone else) remains isolated. Not only physical contact, but emotional and intellectual contact seem impossible throughout the opera. Characters fail to understand their own emotions and fail to communicate what little they do understand. They constantly misinterpret others’ words and actions. The result is unhappiness, violence, and death.

Christiane Pohle’s bizarre production stages disconnection on a meta-theatrical level. The action onstage is blatantly opposed to the text the characters sing. If Golaud says he is looking at Mélisande’s eyes, her face is inevitably turned away. When Mélisande sings about combing her long hair in a tower, she is standing on the ground, not touching her short hair. This disconnection between action and text is compounded by the disconnection between the singers. They rarely interact with or even look at each other; their static, face-forwards blocking is reminiscent of a concert production, especially during the final act when everyone sings sitting in a row at the front of the stage.

In spite of this stasis, the stage bustles with action. Extras periodically file into the hotel reception-cum-package-pick-up-center to retrieve items. During the search for Mélisande’s ring, a group gets trapped between two sets of automatic sliding doors. Odd creatures with rabbit heads form the nightmare world of the third act’s death-scented pool. As Pélleas and Mélisande express their mutual love, the doctor calmly takes his own blood pressure. Don’t try to read too deeply into these choices: the unifying theme, once again, seems to be a lack of connection. The symbols are intentionally, absurdly empty.

The result of this staging is a final, fatal disconnection between the audience and the drama. The production’s concept is not immediately apparent, and, once grasped, it fails to offer further insights or delights. The characters’ lack of movement and interaction can be frustrating and boring. The show is at its best in the fourth act, when characters emerge from their isolation for doomed attempts at communication. They still play the opposite of their words: Mélisande and Golaud kiss as he sings about hurting her, and she smiles rapturously while asserting that she is unhappy. This is active, interesting disconnection rather than passivity. Unfortunately, it is all too rare. Between the negative audience reactions and the lack of motion in the staging (which would likely come across as even more extreme on film), it’s easy to see why the Bayerische Staatsoper cancelled their planned broadcast of this production.

An audio broadcast with this strong cast would have been a treat. Elena Tsallagova stars as Mélisande, with a pure soprano voice that shimmers among Debussy’s orchestral textures. Her young appearance and childlike air fit her character perfectly. As her gray-haired husband Golaud, Markus Eiche combines conversational delivery of his text with a smooth tone. His mastery of legato especially shows in the final act, when he pleads with Mélisande in achingly expressive lines. As Pelléas, Elliot Madore sings with a clear, warm tone and frequently flashes his winning smile.

The smaller roles are also well-filled. Alastair Miles sounds a tad croaky as Arkel, but he manages an excellent characterization in spite of being burdened with a chair to carry. Okka von der Damerau sings the part of Geneviève with her usual richness of tone and perfect poise. Peter Lobert impresses with his booming resonance when he sings the doctor’s few lines. But the secondary star of the evening is Hanno Eilers as the young Yniold. He navigates counterintuitive blocking and tricky entrances without missing a beat. His chirpy soprano is strong and pleasant, and he clearly understands and communicates the thoughts behind his lines.

Conductor Constantinos Carydis leads the Bayerische Staatsorchester in a smooth, melodic reading of Debussy’s score. The flutes and harps make for particularly agreeable listening. Musically, this is an opera performance of the best caliber. But Christiane Pohle’s staging disconnects everything from everything else—and loses the audience in the bargain. The production is ultimately dull in spite of its novelty.

Ilana Walder-Biesanz

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