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The Isle of the Dead

Teatro Pavarotti-Freni
01/20/2023 -  & January 22, 2023
Claude Debussy : Pelléas et Mélisande
Philip Addis (Pelléas), Karen Vourc’h (Mélisande), Michael Bachtadze (Golaud), Enkelejda Shkoza (Geneviève), Vincent Le Texier (Arkel), Silvia Frigato (Yniold), Roberto Lorenzi (Un médecin, Un berger)
Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma, Massimo Fiocchi Malaspina (chorus master), Orchestra dell’Emilia-Romagna, Marco Angius (conductor)
André Barbe & Renaud Doucet, reprised by Florence Bas (stage directors, sets & costumes), Guy Simard, reprised by Andrea Ricci (lights), Anna Redi (choreography)

V. Le Texier, K. Vourc’h, P. Addis

It can be a thrilling experience to attend a performance of Pelléas et Mélisande, as marvelous opportunities abound for a creative stage director. Based on the eponymous play by symbolist Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, this performance was on par with some of the finer productions I’ve experienced. The Canadian team of Barbe and Doucet have an overall concept evocative of fairy tales which is more appropriate than any attempt at realism. Mélisande’s costumes were reminiscent of the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley (1872‑1896), the illustrator of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, from the late 1890s. This is appropriate, as Debussy’s opera premiered in 1902. Pelléas’s costumes and hair were almost identical to those of the namesake of Antoine de Saint‑Exupéry’s beloved book, Le Petit Prince.

Over a century after its première, Pelléas et Mélisande remains avant‑garde, at least dramatically. Debussy’s rich music is familiar to many thanks to his seminal orchestral and piano works, and this work is not challenging for the contemporary listener. However, the libretto, a variant of Dante’s Francesca da Rimini’s love triangle, is more aesthetic than realistic. Thus, the brilliant idea of Barbe & Doucet to make Arkel’s kingdom Allemonde, a mystical place, possibly a land of lost souls, a Purgatory.

A haunting effect is created by the constant presence of six veiled maidens, dressed in “ancient Greek” fashion reminiscent of Léon Bakst’s original costumes for the Nymphs in Debussy’s 1894 “eclogue for orchestra,” Prélude à l’après‑midi d’un faune, subsequently made famous by Nijinsky in the form of a ballet he choreographed (again, an aesthetic reference to the period of the opera’s creation). These maidens appear to be ghosts living among the opera’s protagonists. At some moments, they observe the action and other times they seem to direct it (leading Golaud to the lost Mélisande at the opening of the opera, or finishing off Pelléas after he is struck by Golaud’s sword in Act IV).

In fact, it seems that Arkel’s entire kingdom is a Realm of the Dead, a place where lost souls find themselves. Debussy himself was highly interested in Spiritualism, as were many among the cultural and moneyed elite at the turn of the century. Mélisande seems to have found herself lost in the forest, not knowing who she was or where she was from, as might be a spirit after passing.

Plants and water were ever present in Barbe & Doucet’s production. Didn’t Golaud find Mélisande by a brook in the forest where she had dropped her crown? (a reference to her previous life). And didn’t Mélisande drop her wedding ring in the fountain? (an allusion to the renouncement of her spouse in favour of Pelléas). Don’t Pelléas and Mélisande go looking for that ring in the cave by the sea, though both know it wasn’t lost there? Indeed, water is an essential element in the opera, and one can sense it in Debussy’s music. After all, it was he who composed “La Cathédrale engloutie”, “Ondine” and La Mer.

The vocal assemblage was as brilliant as the production. The three leads, Canadian baritone Philip Addis as Pelléas, French soprano Karen Vourc’h as Mélisande and Georgian baritone Michael Bachtadze as Golaud, impressed with their acting abilities and their impressive diction. Philip Addis has an affinity for twentieth century music, as shown by his frequent appearances in Britten’s operas. This is a highly-intelligent young singer who carefully chooses roles he can identify with. From the moment he appeared on stage, until his demise, Addis portrayed an innocent, a trait that makes Pelléas endearing. One senses that he and Mélisande truly fell in love, unaware of their predicament. This makes their Act IV declaration “Tu ne sais pas pourquoi il faut que je m’éloigne...Tu ne sais pas que c’est parce que.../Je t’aime aussi.../Oh! qu’as‑tu dit, Mélisande!” so genuine and moving.

Vocally demanding due to its length, the role of Mélisande is not technically challenging; the tessitura is high but there are no vocal acrobatics. It was obvious that Karen Vourc’h was completely immersed in her role. One can still hear her uttering affecting phrases such as “Ne me touchez pas! ne me touchez pas, ou je me jette à l’eau!” to ward off Golaud in their initial encounter, and “Oh! Oh! Je ne suis pas heureuse,” expressing her unhappiness to Golaud in Act II, or “Je ne comprends pas non plus tout ce que je dis, voyez‑vous...Je ne sais pas ce que je dis...Je ne sais pas ce que je sais…Je ne dis plus ce que je veux,” on her deathbed in Act V.

Of all French operas, Pelléas et Mélisande requires a true mastery of the language and of its declamation. French bass‑baritone VincentLe  Téxier stood out thanks to his formidable presence and his moving performance. Michael Bachtadze was able to render Golaud human, almost amiable: a brutish rough man more at home with hunting than facing his own emotions. One felt for him when Mélisande taunted him for looking older, when he desperately wanted to learn about the nature of Pelléas’s friendship with Mélisande from Yniold and finally when he was shattered for his killing Pelléas and hurting Mélisande. Albanian mezzo Enkelejda Shkoza had a dignified presence in the secondary role of Geneviève. It was a blessing to have a soprano in the role of the child Yniold rather than a boy soprano. Silvia Frigato sang well and acted convincingly as the innocent boy, but her diction was at times tentative. The Orchestra dell’Emilia-Romagna under the able direction of Marco Angius rose to the challenge of playing such a demanding score. Thanks to the excellent orchestra, the lengthy five‑act opera passed pleasantly.

This was a performance memorable for its superb singing and interpretation, as well as for its creative staging and sets. Many of the scenes, such as Mélisande at the tower with her golden braids reaching the ground; Pelléas and Mélisande at the Fountain (la fontaine des aveugles) and in the cave; Yniold up the ladder spying on Mélisande at Golaud’s instigation; and Mélisande on her deathbed, will be engraved in the audience’s collective memory for years to come.

It’s heartening to know that a town of under 200,000 inhabitants can successfully mount a first‑rate production of one of the most demanding operas in the repertoire. Its lovely 1841 opera house was nearly sold out on this triumphant evening. And notably, the audience didn’t stray after the sole intermission, between Acts IV & V, as I witnessed at productions in major cities. Rising to this formidable challenge is testimony to both a dedicated opera company and its faithful public. Bravissimi!

Ossama el Naggar



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