Edinburgh Festival – Pelléas et Mélisande

Pelléas et Mélisande

Hanover State Opera

Arkel – Xiaoliang Li
Geneviève – Danielle Grima
Pelléas – Will Hartmann
Golaud – Oliver Zwarg
Mélisande – Alla Kravchuk
Yniold – Sunhae Im
Physician – Daniel Henriks
Beggar – Jutta Schroder

Shao-Chia Lü – conductor

Direction and Dramaturgy – Jossi Wieler & Sergio Morabito
Costumes and Sets – Kazuko Watanabe
Lighting design – David Finn

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 28 August, 2004
Venue: Edinburgh Festival Theatre

This was one of three offerings by Hanover State Opera at the 2004 Edinburgh Festival, the others being Il Trovatore “with scenes of a graphic nature”, directed by Calixto Bieito, and Luigi Nono’s Al gran sole carico d’amore. Pelléas was directed by the team of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito and it too contained a few scenes of “graphic nature”.

In the programme notes Morabito made much of reverting to the opera’s original version “without the additional music Debussy was obliged to write to bridge the pauses for scene changes” at the time of the premiere in 1902. Despite this pitch for authenticity, there wasn’t much else that was authentic about this production. For a start, the international cast’s French, especially that of Golaud (Oliver Zwarg), bore remarkably little resemblance to the language as normally spoken. Nor, with the honourable exception of Alla Kravchuk’s Mélisande, was the expressionist over-acting of the remainder of the cast exactly appropriate; it might have been fine for Wozzeck or Erwartung but hardly Pelléas.

However, the real stumbling block was the production itself. Imagine Pelléas transposed into an over-lit Zurich clinic, brilliant white throughout, cheap office furniture in the background, Yniold as an androgynous delinquent, the aged Arkel played by a singer who strides about the stage like a man of 25 singing at the top of his voice even when one foot away from the dying Mélisande, a Golaud who, instead of raising Yniold up to spy through the window on Pelléas and Mélisande, lies flat on the stage appearing to molest the unfortunate child – and there you just about have it.

Oh, I forgot Pelléas, an adolescent in blue lycra lumbering around the brightly-lit stage clutching several empty sports bags.

The pièce de résistance in this gloriously silly production comes at the point just before Pelléas is killed by Golaud; the lovers sense him lurking behind some (in this production) non-existent trees and Mélisande sings “Il a son épée” (he has his sword) and Pelléas replies “Je n’ai pas la mienne” (I don’t have mine) – at which point Golaud draws a revolver and shoots him dead.

Notwithstanding the above, there were actually some good things here as well, not least a well-sung and very plausible Mélisande exuding the requisite mysterious sexual allure from Alla Kravchuk, a young Ukrainian singer of whom one hopes a great deal more will be heard. Nor was the Pelléas of Will Hartmann at all bad, despite the blue lycra, and at least his French was passable. Sunhae Im’s Yniold also showed real theatrical promise despite being obliged to play the part as a spoilt adolescent brat, and the orchestra under Shao-Chia Lü, played securely and for the most part sensitively even if the ideal fluidity was lacking from this delicate music. The pacing of the score was too unvaried, and on occasion the orchestra overwhelmed the singers.

Despite the loss of some music, this seemed a very long evening, especially the final scenes. Part of the reason may have been that, with so unsympathetic a portrayal of the key characters, by the close one had largely lost interest in their fate. There is, of course, a place for a radical re-think of how to stage opera and for repositioning the mythical into the modern world – think of Cocteau’s marvellous re-imagining of the Orpheus myth in his movie Orphée – but unfortunately this production was not it.

Pelléas occupies a twilight world where nothing is made explicit and questions are answered with another question. Dispensing with all the shadows, and dotting Is and crossing Ts, as on this occasion, does the work no favours. My enduring image of this production is of Danielle Grima’s Geneviève in the final scene wheeling Golaud’s child across the stage in an incubator, presumably on loan from the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary next door, its red light winking. At least the incubator looked authentic which is more than could be said for the remainder of this production.

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