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Pelléas et Mélisande at the Capitole in Toulouse

“The role of Mélisande seems made for Victoire Bunel. The fragile, mysterious woman of the first encounter with Golaud will develop into a real character through the trials and tribulations; the support of the voice contributes to this, as does the acting. The first part is diaphanous, ethereal, marked by a superb fluidity of register and particularly expressive vocal inflections; this purity nonetheless conveys all the affects of the role, which the actress literally lives. The death scene is of obvious beauty.

Crédit : Mirco Magliocca

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Capitole in Toulouse

19/05/2024 - Résonances Lyriques, Didier Roumilhac

One wonders why we can speak of a “Pelléas Moment” – a suspended and unique moment – in connection with the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Opéra-Comique in 1902, when all the elements that cumulate in the opera were already present, but scattered, in the musical context of the time? To give you an idea: the continuous melody (Wagner, Mussorgsky…), an opera without a libretto but composed directly from a literary work (a subject debated by Gounod), a naturalistic register borrowed in fits and starts from the artistic mainstream of the time (Alfred Bruneau’s Le Rêve, Louise, even Paillasse). The “moment” was, however, historic and lived as such. André Messager, who conducted the premiere and arranged the orchestral parts, and Émile Vuillermoz, among others, echoed this; although it was not a new battle of Hernani, there were jeers at the dress rehearsal, wrote Messager; Vuillermoz recalled the presence in the auditorium of “Gilets-rouges” (red waistcoats) who were there to restore silence. Be that as it may, the atmosphere was calmed at the premiere. But it was the musical event itself that made history: for the composer, it was a new way of writing opera music and of offering the public a disruptive work; for the public, it was a contact with a form that they saw as bringing something new rather than owing something to the past.

Summed up, there is nothing original about the plot. A young woman, Mélisande, falls in love with Pelléas, her husband Golaud’s half-brother. All are marked by a mysterious past. Golaud sinks into fits of jealousy, kills his wife’s lover and indirectly causes her death.

A symbolist opera?

Nothing works the way it does in a classic theatrical text, with coups de théâtre and ostentatious outbursts. Feelings slip surreptitiously from one scene to the next. It’s a ring that falls into the water at the moment of a horse accident, a dagger as clumsily borrowed as the revolvers in Werther, words of wisdom reiterated without effect by Arkel, a death stolen from the tragic… It’s the furtive appearances of sheep, of unfortunates, and even in a place as gloomy as the kingdom of Allemonde of children, little Yniold, or even the newborn baby at the denouement.

In a symbolist play, shadow plays with light, clear water alternates with still water, underground passages follow caves and pools.

The music would be expected if we confined ourselves to checking a few common structures: a recitative that progresses to arioso, cantabile or melody; leitmotifs that are uncertain, but identifiable. But nothing is quite so simple in this spellbinding, timeless, weightless opera. The ‘mood’ is created by new means: subtle text-song shifts (in tune with evanescence), motifs that anticipate or delay, a vagueness that, as Pierre Boulez, an admirer of the score, saw it, is indebted to the composer’s creative intelligence. Debussy himself was aware of this in “M. Croche”: “Music has a rhythm whose secret force directs its development; the movements of the soul are another, more instinctively general and subject to multiple events. The juxtaposition of these two rhythms gives rise to a perpetual conflict. It happens at the same time: either the music runs out of steam chasing a character, or the character sits on a note to allow the music to catch up.

Éric Ruf’s direction

Already familiar from other dates in the co-production, Éric Ruf’s staging is very appealing. It is in keeping with the Symbolist movement to which the play is most often associated. However, the production does not use the succession of signifiers that the text would allow (the cave, the underground passages, the Baudelairian hair, even the “three old poor men” or the enigmatic sheep). It’s the play that takes centre stage, with situations and characters in which the audience takes an interest. This would be one of the major features of the production. Although the vaguely medieval Château d’Allemonde has not been preserved, the set design works by equivalence. The Keroman submarine base, which, according to the design brief, serves as a model for the set, has a similar function and is more universal. The walls are Cyclopean, the lighting rare; the vast net over the set floods the stage, creating a fetid, anguished atmosphere. The internal stage directions help us to imagine the locations, which provide the backdrop for the rhythmic movements and the moods of the audience. Visually, references to Klimt and Orthodox icons give the window scene a pictorial dimension and a particular opulence. The costumes designed by Christian Lacroix reinforce the physical existence of the characters: Mélisande’s train, a sign of a previous life, in Act I, and her black and white diamond dresses all serve to identify her.

Although the characters initially appear inconsistent and evanescent, never touching, they gradually come to exist in their relationships, even if the weight of words takes precedence over actions. Mélisande learns to deceive and lie, Golaud to use violence, even against his own son, from whom he does not get the revelations he wanted. The Prince’s interrogations are conducted as if in a naturalist opera (one thinks of Paillasse confronting Nedda); Arkel’s sidelining of him gives his death a poignancy that borders on the unbearable. The maids, limited to three, are reminiscent of the three unfortunates in the cave, or even the Norns in Twilight of the Gods. Mélisande’s relationship with Pelléas has the expected theatrical moments. The loss of the ring, the long hair that descends from the tower, and the final encounter in which a grand duet à la Massenet partly dispenses with the continuous melody to give full rein to the accents of passion are another side of the play translated in a staging attentive to the slightest nuances.

Orchestra and cast

We couldn’t have chosen a better conductor than Léo Hussain, a great connoisseur of French music, whom we appreciated in the recording of Saint-Saëns’s La Princesse jaune, to lead the Orchestre national du Capitole in Debussy. The orchestra began, as in Bayreuth, without the conductor’s arrival being acknowledged. Without ever drowning out the voices, Léo Hussain develops a long symphonic poem that is attentive to the singing, knowing how to give it the suppleness of melody but also the effectiveness of theatre, the action advancing through the enhancement of the music stands (which it would take too long to list) as well as through the complex and unheard-of harmonic and rhythmic diaprure of the score.

Victoire Bunel says she was overwhelmed by a recording of Pelléas et Mélisande when she was a student. The role of Mélisande seemed made for her. The fragile, mysterious woman of her first encounter with Golaud will develop into a real character through the trials and tribulations of the role; the support of the voice contributes to this, as does the acting. The first part is diaphanous, ethereal, marked by a superb fluidity of registers and particularly expressive vocal inflections; this purity nonetheless conveys all the affects of the role, which the actress literally lives. The death scene is of obvious beauty.

Marc Mauillon is one of our greatest interpreters of the Baroque style, which he has extended to other repertoires, including opéra-bouffe with his recent performances in La Vie parisienne at the Palazzetto Bru Zane. This shows the attention he pays to the dramatic and musical authenticity of the roles he takes on. As well as his great predecessors, Jacques Jansen and Camille Maurane, his clarity of tone, impeccable diction, and the projection of notes as allies of words make him an ideal singer; his youth, ardour and charm are also part and parcel of an acting style that never slackens.

Tassis Christoyannis is a magnificent Golaud in voice and stage interpretation; the character exists, restless, tragic, in a quasi-second state of torturing jealousy; the legato, the power of the voice, the colours available to the harmonics offer a vocal profile suited to the scale of the role.

Hunding, King Marke and Daland are the roles of Franz-Josef Selig, who has no difficulty in slipping into Arkel’s beautiful monologues, delivered with eloquence and vocal nobility, the role isolating the character in his blindness to events, except in Act V where he controls the progress of the denouement. Another seasoned Wagnerian, Janina Baechle, gives Geneviève’s aria a declamatory singing full of humanity.

Anne-Sophie Petit is perfect as Yniold.

Even if the work itself can create obstacles for some spectators, the success of a production like this one at the Capitole makes up for it; the long and enthusiastic applause was proof of that.