Monday, November 5, 2012

Premiere on Sunday, November 4, 2012

Conductor - Friedemann Layer
Director - Claus Guth
Set and costumes - Christian Schmidt
Lighting - Olaf Winter
Dramaturg - Norbert Abels
Chorus - Felix Lemke

Arkel, King of Allemonde - Alfred Reiter
Pelléas - Christian Gerhaher
Mélisande - Christiane Karg
Golaud, Arkel's grandson - Paul Gay
Geneviève - Hilary Summers
Yniold, Golaud's son from his first marriage - David Jakob Schläger
A doctor - Sungkon Kim
Frankfurt Opera chorus
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester

   Everyone has their ghosts.
   But there seems to be more than a fair share of them in Claus Guth's terrifying new reading of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, which opened at the Frankfurt Opera on Sunday.
   "Je suis malade ici, je ne suis pas heureuse ici..." Mélisande repeatedly complains. She's not the only one.
   Nearly 10 years after peering deep into the abyss of sexual abuse in Der Fliegende Holländer in Bayreuth, Guth takes us on another dark and disturbing journey into the depths of the human psyche here.
   Maurice Maeterlinck's symbolistic play, which serves as Debussy's libretto, is fleetingly elliptical, a retelling of the fairy story of Rapunzel in colours by Edvard Munch.
   But Guth isn't afraid to grab the story's subject matter by the lapels and call it what it is.
   Mélisande is no ephemeral, golden-haired wisp of a nymph. When Golaud finds her -- he is alerted to her presence not by her sobs, as the libretto suggests, but by her coughs -- she has clearly suffered some terrible physical trauma. She is disorientated, her clothes and hair are dishevelled.
Photo: Monika Rittershaus
   We can only imagine the horror of what she has gone through as she tries, with shaking hands, to light a cigarette and pleas for Golaud not to touch her ("Ne me touchez pas!"). And when he asks who has hurt her ("Qui est-ce qui vous a fait du mal?"), her reply, "Tous! Tous!", could not be more chilling.
   Unfortunately, Golaud's home of Allemonde, to which he takes her, offers no refuge for the traumatised Mélisande. The abuse, both physical and emotional, continues.
   Golaud, who suspects Mélisande of being in love with his much younger half-brother Pelléas, torments not only himself and her with his jealousy, but also his small son by his first marriage, Yniold, by forcing him to spy on the suspected lovers.
   The brothers' grandfather and king of Allemonde, Arkel, also crosses a line when Mélisande turns to him for comfort.
   And even Pelléas, in whom Mélisande desperately hopes to have found her rescuer, humiliates her by tying her up in some sort of sublimated sexual game and leaves her there for Golaud to find her.
Photo: Monika Rittershaus
   Not that the men are merely perpetrators. They, too, all seem haunted and tormented by their own inner ghosts, victims of some past deep traumas of their own, while the brothers' mother Geneviève cannot or refuses to see and acknowledge what is going on.
   The air, sings Pelléas, is "heavy and dank like a noisome mist of lead, and there's a darkness so thick that it lies in dense and poisoned masses" ("Il y a là un air humide et lourd come une rosée de plomb, et des ténèbres épaisses comme une pâte empoisonée.")
   Everyone is trapped in this stifling and claustrophobic world, which is inhabited by eerie shadows and ghosts and which we can occasionally just about make out in the all-enveloping gloom.
   The ingenious set, by Guth's long-standing collaborator Christian Schmidt, is designed as a giant doll's house, allowing us to watch the goings-on in the different rooms of Allemonde simultaneously.
Photo: Monika Rittershaus

   Even if Guth's thought-provoking new reading were not so cogently and intelligently wrought, this new staging would be worth seeing for the cast alone, with Christian Gerhaher and Christiane Karg making their debuts in the title roles.
   The role of Pelléas is tricky because it is considered to be too high for a baritone and too low for a tenor.
   Pierre Boulez, for example, who conducted Peter Stein's seminal staging of the work for Welsh National Opera in the early 90s, insists the role should be taken by a tenor. This is backed up in the score where Debussy notates Pelléas's part in the treble clef.
   But baritone Gerhaher, one of the most consistently intelligent and thoughtful Lied singers around today, has no trouble with the high tessitura.
   He is utterly believeable in the role, too, twitching with suppressed sexual feeling, but with ripples of ambiguous menace showing through the surface at times, too.
   Mélisande can also be sung by either a soprano or a mezzo since it only occasionally strays above the stave to A flat.
   Natalie Dessay took on the role a few years ago in Vienna, while Anne Sofie von Otter has sung it too.
   Frankfurt Opera's own Christiane Karg has a limpid, well-focused lyric soprano, but her Mélisande, while scarred and fragile, is never timid or fey.
   Paul Gay is gripping as Golaud, no outright villain, but a man at sea emotionally who ends up hurting everyone around him and murdering Pelléas. He vainly tries to convince himself that the love between Pelléas and Mélisande is innocent, but continues to torment Mélisande even when she is dying.
   The role of Geneviève is somewhat thankless. She isn't called on to do much after her big scene early in Act 1. Nevertheless, the normally excellent Hilary Summers sounded occasionally underpowered, as if she might have been somewhat indisposed.
   Frankfurt Opera's own Alfred Reiter was well suited to the role of Arkel and David Jakob Schläger was enchanting as Yniold, looking and sounding like Little Lord Fauntleroy.
   The only slight drawback of the evening was conductor Friedemann Layer, whose slow and leaden tempi occasionally weighed down much of Debussy's miraculous score. But that is a perhaps a minor quibble which will hopefully be ironed out in subsequent performances.
   The production runs until early December. It may not be one for the faint-hearted. But if you like your opera to be challenging and unsettling, this is definitely one for you.


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