A cold, distant Pelléas et Mélisande from Paris (Naïve)

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande **

(Naïve DR2159)

pelleas-melisande-naive-cover“Ne me touchez pas, ne me touchez pas,” protests Mélisande when Golaud discovers her in the forest in the opening scene of Debussy’s opera. I declared early on in my viewing that Mélisande need have nothing to fear in this production from the Opéra Bastille. The only points of contact between any of the characters occurs in the climactic moment of Act IV, where the ‘embrace’ between Pelléas and Mélisande is a grasping of hands, swiftly followed by the death blow dealt (minus sword) to his brother by Golaud, her husband. It was no surprise to read ‘Mise en scène: Robert Wilson’ on the stylish cover of this DVD. His characters drift around his abstract set in slow motion, arms held aloft in a strangely choreographed semaphore. The long distance interactions puzzle, then infuriate. Quite how Mélisande gets pregnant is anybody’s guess.

Earlier on, we suffer several contradictions to the libretto; “I’ll take your arm,” Pelléas tells Mélisande as they head down a steep path, but he does nothing of the sort. In Act II, Mélisande notices a spot of blood on Golaud’s pillow, even though she’s nowhere near enough to his bed to see. Worst of all, when Mélisande’s hair cascades from the tower, we’re told it envelops Pelléas, who holds it in his hands and sings of winding it around his neck. Here, baritone and soprano are on opposite sides of the stage, robbing the opera of its most sensual moment. At the opera’s end, Mélisande doesn’t die, even of boredom, but trundles off stage-left.

True, Wilson creates some beautiful imagery from minimal sets – silhouettes give the impression of a forest, while a ring projected in the sky becomes the moon or, projected on the stage, becomes the well by which Mélisande resides. The cold, clinical staging has the bare set and characters bathed in nocturnal blue lighting, an eerie wash of cobalt, indigo and Prussian blue reminiscent of Dougal and the Blue Cat. Remember the nightmarish Buxton?

© Opéra national de Paris / Charles Duprat

© Opéra national de Paris / Charles Duprat

Vocally, there is much to enjoy. Elena Tsallagova’s Mélisande is touching in the fragility of her tone, with exquisite pianissimos to charm the ear. She is partnered by the excellent Pelléas of Stéphane Degout, darker than some baritones, the voice full of inherent sadness. They sing fabulously together. Vincent Le Texier is the most vocally animated character, as an anguished Golaud, although he is occasionally too rough of tone. There is fine support from Anne Sofie von Otter as Geneviève, her mezzo now less silky then previously caught, while Franz Josef Selig is a solid Arkel. Le petit Yniold is here sung by a soprano, Julie Mathevet, an entirely understandable decision given Wilson’s choreographical demands. In the pit of the Opéra Bastille, Philippe Jordan finds Wagnerian beauty in Debussy’s score, pacing the score slowly, in accordance with Wilson’s staging. The Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris plays with great luminosity.

© Opéra national de Paris / Charles Duprat

© Opéra national de Paris / Charles Duprat

When the musical performances are so strong, it would be consolation to report that listening with the visuals turned off provided a more satisfying experience, but the audio recording employs microphones which distort at a level well below peak, which is simply unacceptable. Sound is purely in stereo, with no 5.1 surround option.

The presentation is very fine; a long, sleek booklet printed on good quality, glossy paper and full of production photographs, a synopsis, biographies, an essay, a note by the composer from 1902 and an enthusiastic review of the opera’s première by Paul Dukas. Alas, mine is less glowing.

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