11 October, 2008

Review of Debussy's 'Pelléas et Melisande', 09/10/08

Dublin City Hall's Rotunda Theatre is a pretty unique venue for an opera. Its high dome, its Georgian architecture, paintings and stately statuary seemed fitting surroundings for Debussy’s setting of Maeterlinck’s Neoclassical play Pelléas et Melisande; being corralled by the circle of pillars, which doubled as stage walls and props, created an intimacy which threatened to dissolve the barriers between stage and audience. However, the small “theatre” meant that the production were forced to use the two-piano rather than full orchestral version. Robbed of the specific colours and timbres prescribed by Debussy’s orchestration, lines, themes and motifs lived up to the their original criticisms and became truly blurred and indistinguishable from each other. With the vocal parts closer to speech than song, and the symbolic significance of certain instruments and the overall character of the music depleted, the opera was rendered somewhat flat, while the singers struggled to be heard in the sound-devouring dome. Though it did serve to emphasise the role of silence in the opera, used by the composer to add weight to certain lines and sentences: in a long-unfolding form such as that of Pelléas et Melisande, any cessation of the pianos in the echoing dome made silence starker, and reverb-laden solo lines more striking.

While The Dublin Corp should be applauded for their attempt to make an relatively difficult opera more accessible (certainly I appreciated being able to follow the story for once), but the English translation of Maeterlinck’s libretto undermines a central tenet of the work’s compositional aesthetic: the close relationship between the Debussy’s vocal writing and the nuances of the French language. A major source of this opera’s original criticism was the composer’s choice to dissolve the traditional forms of opera into a continuous Rousseau-inspired recitative-like speech pattern, which follows the rhythms and inflections of the librettos original language closely, down to the liquid sounds of the protagonists names (the particular accents of which were, by necessity, retained). The English translation therefore rang a little false, a dialogue forced upon an existing framework of rhythms, emphases and cadences.

But despite the above criticisms, and the slight chopping around of scenes, this production of Pelléas et Melisande is an excellent one. I have to own that I did not pick up a program (call me cheap or call me a student) so more details about the cast, musicians and production crew will have to be sourced from elsewhere, but I can say that each of the cast members had power and depth, with Golaud in particular fulfilling his role of the volatile, betrayed husband and Melisande doing what she could with her fairly disinteresting part. Pelléas was as milky as his character but with moments of memorable sweetness. What really shone in this opera was not in fact the performance, but the stage itself. Minimal in terms of its use of space and props, the directors adhered strictly to the nature of the play, placing the symbolic forces of light and water in as important a role in the setting as the characters and props themselves. Lit candles served to not only mark the passage of time and the difference between interior and exterior but to cast light or shadows on characters and moments. The problem of the frequent references to water in the opera (the sea, the fountain, even the stagnant water beneath the castle) was solved by placing a circle of plastic on the floor and using a shimmering blue/green light to project its image onto a pillar, reflecting through shadows and light any action which took place at the water.

Though the opera may not have been exactly as Debussy had intended (Dublin not exactly being early 20th century Paris anyway), this production of Pelleas et Melisande is a brave and original one, eschewing the traditional forbidding formality and modifying the aesthetic traditions of the classical concert or opera in favour of intimacy, minimalism and a valiant attempt at modernisation.

Anna Murray

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