Saturday, April 22, 2006

La vérité, la vérité... - Pelléas et Mélisande at the Salzburg Easter Festival

Recently, I’ve noticed a trend in supertitles in which the supertitles aren’t direct translations of what the singers are singing but are instead changed to read something completely different, often in the hopes of being funny or of making more sense with whatever crackheaded “updating” the director has decided to do. This disturbs and annoys me, because the words are extremely important in opera. In Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio, a poet and a musician argue back and forth about what is more important in opera—the words or the music. The answer is, of course, neither; they are equally important. Without words, the music couldn’t tell a story and would just be a series of nonsensical vocalizations. Without music, an opera would just be a play. The music gives us insight into the composer’s feelings toward his subject matter; he can develop the characters, delineate a scene, present a theme, but the librettist is expressing himself as well, and, perhaps more importantly, he is making the characters express themselves. The libretto is the truth of the opera in some ways, and when it is changed or completely ignored, the meaning of the opera changes too. Nowadays, however, the argument from Capriccio would have to be altered to say, “Primo l’amor proprio del direttore, e dopo la musica, ed allora, forse, le parole” (First, the director’s ego, and after that, the music, and then, maybe, the words.) If there ever needed to be proof of just how wrong this view is, one need only compare the Boston 2003 concert version of Pelléas et Mélisande to the fully staged one at the Salzburg Easter Festival.

Pelléas et Mélisande must be an incredibly difficult work to stage. Debussy's music is so rich with visual description that it would be a strain for any set designer and director to try to match it or reproduce it. Stanislas Nordey, the director, went too far in the other direction, however, and decided to disregard the images in the music and libretto completely. The colors in Debussy's music are soft, shaded, sometimes murky, the colors produced by pastels blended until one flows into the other; they are cool, like a stone that is always shaded by trees. In the love scenes or in Golaud's outbursts, there are flashes of light and energy, coruscations, but it's more like the sparkle of sunlight on water than the hot, bloody passionate fire of a verismo opera. Seeing the staging, however, I have to wonder if Nordey had ever listened to the music of the opera, or if he had just read the libretto and chosen the items (I refuse to call them "symbols") that he wanted to use. Instead of using a watery, Impressionist palette of blues, grays, and greens, Nordey fell back on the now tired red-black-white trifecta that seems so beloved by stage directors. I suppose they like it because it's easy; red, black, and white all have very definite, easily recognizable connotations in Western culture, but I've only seen it done well once, in the Luc Bondy production of Don Carlos from 1996. It is too rigid an idea for Pelléas et Mélisande, which is more fluid, and it simply doesn't match the music.

In the first three acts, the stage is dominated by what looked like three giant cereal boxes painted black. During the orchestral interludes, some stagehands would come out and spin the boxes around until they finally opened the center one to reveal an interior lined with an item--letters, red dresses, flowers, bloodstained pillows. It was irritating and predictable, though the annoyingly pretentious namedroppers sitting behind me insisted that it represented the incapability of human beings to foresee their fate; the spinning boxes were like the Wheel of Fortune (in the Carmina Burana sense, not in the Pat Sajak sense)--you never knew where they'd stop or what they'd open to reveal. While fate is a pretty common theme in opera, I don't think it's hugely important in Pelléas et Mélisande. If anything, it's an opera of choice rather than fate. Anyway, I thought the cereal boxes just represented the modern stage director's attention deficit disorder...or their belief in their audience's attention deficit disorder. Something doesn't have to be moving onstage at all times. Instead of revealing delicious crunchy cereal or a tiny spy camera or something when they were opened, the boxes were always full of maddeningly literal items that happened to be mentioned in the libretto. They weren't symbols, though I'm sure that's what Nordey intended, since Pelléas is based on a Symbolist play. But you can't just take a random item and call it a symbol; symbols have to mean something. They have to, well, symbolize something; the whole point of the Symbolism movement was to "clothe the Ideal in perceptible form." The worst offender to the brain cells was the first cereal box surprise, which was revealed in the second scene of the first act--the letters. Act I, scene ii does involve two letters: one from Golaud telling his family of his marriage to Mélisande, and one from Pelléas's friend Marcellus saying that he is dying and would like Pelléas to visit. They are actual letters, though, not symbols. When Nordey couldn't think of any good "symbols", he decided it would be a good idea to have Pelléas and Mélisande's names repeated over and over again in lights. Why? It just seemed like stupidity for stupidity's sake at that point. The only somewhat effective cereal box surprise was in the scene in which Golaud is holding his son up to Mélisande's window to spy on her and Pelléas. In that scene, the box opened to reveal what appeared to be Angelika Kirchschlager (Mélisande) and Simon Keenlyside (Pelléas) suspended in two chairs, facing one another. Their absolute rigidity and the somehow wrong colors and proportions of their bodies soon made it clear that it wasn't Kirchschlager and Keenlyside sitting there, it was mannequins made in their likeness. While creepy, the setup did work with the libretto; Yniold says that Pelléas and Mélisande are sitting together, staring into a lamp and not blinking. The mannequins weren't really symbols either, but at least they made sense.

As random as the items were, their disappearance was just as random. After the intermission, Act IV was set against a blood-red background, because there's love! and death! and blood! in it. My attention really started to slip in Act V, since Pelléas is murdered at the end of Act IV, so I can't remember what the scenery was like, except that there were rows upon rows of the hideous Pierrot costumes that the royal family of Allemonde and their servants wore. The only thing that united the two halves of the opera was the color scheme. There was no explanation or reason for the disappearance of the rotating boxes, except that maybe Nordey couldn't find any suitable items in Act IV and V to line them with.

What bothered me most about the production was that it was just another example of stage directors not using, or even ignoring, what the librettist and the composer have given them to work with. Nordey is the poor man's Robert Wilson ("poor man's" only because his lighting rehearsals probably don't take 100 hours and thousands upon thousands of dollars like Wilson's do; Wilson is a total crook). He should know that following in Wilson's footsteps will only get him his face Photoshopped onto a douche bottle. While the movements weren't quite as rigid and stylized as what you'd see in a Wilson production, there were several inexplicable and downright laughable gestures. Mélisande and Yniold's weeping consisted of them holding their hands open rigidly in front of their faces and nothing else, no shaking shoulders, nothing. At one point, Mélisande put one hand up to her face, which made me wonder, "Is she half-crying?" In Act V, when Mélisande is supposed to be lying in bed dying, Nordey had Kirchschlager sitting in a chair at the center of the stage. During the act, she raised her hand above her head for a few seconds, and then dropped it. According to Arkel in the libretto, she's supposed to be reaching for her newborn child. Um, yeah. The final act of idiocy was the gesture Mélisande made as she died--she slowly raised her arm and then drew it down in front of her face and back into her lap. How does that mean death? How does that mean anything?

Although the characters were allowed to have facial expressions and look at and touch one another in a very un-Wilsonian fashion, key gestures were left out, even when they were described in the libretto. When Arkel kisses Mélisande's forehead in Act IV, he apparently does so from across the room, a feat as magical as Kundry washing Parsifal's feet using only the power of her mind. There is no reason to leave such gestures out, and every reason to leave them in and make the most of them. I wouldn't want a verismo-style Pelléas with lots of chest-thumping, breast-beating, and hair-pulling, but its fluidity and subtlety could use some grounding in physical interaction and contact. Nordey left some interaction out, but then he would include physicality that isn't in the libretto at all and that actually somewhat contradicted it. In the Act IV, scene iv moment when Pelléas and Mélisande declare their love and kiss, right before Golaud murders Pelléas, Keenlyside and Kirchschlager all but mauled each other. He had her down on the ground before Golaud finally stabbed him. Then, in Act V, Golaud says that Pelléas and Mélisande were kissing like children. Hmm...Golaud must have the Pete Townshend view of children then. It's the fault of the direction, since in the libretto, Pelléas says "Ta bouche! Ta bouche!" and then they embrace; he doesn't say "Ton vagin! Ton vagin!"

Of course, no vent against the staging and direction would be complete without some complaints about the costumes. At least seeing the monstrosity in advance was something of a buffer, but they were hideous. Mélisande got off easy with an unflattering red satin slip dress, as did her female servants in white dresses, but everyone else, from King Arkel to the shepherd, had to wear these hideous white Ashes-to-Ashes Bowie/Optimus Prime/Mayor of Munchkin Land Pierrot costumes. Not only did they make the royal family of Allemonde look like the Widettes, they were also made of some disgusting rubbery gym-mat material, which basically made the singers into mobile rice steamers under the heat of the stage lights. It's probably giving Nordey too much credit to wonder if the Pierrot costumes had anything to do with the story of Pierrot in which Pierrot, in defiance of St. Peter (who has adopted him), plays with the ordinary children he comes upon after wandering through the gates of Paradise. The touch of the ordinary children makes black marks on Pierrot's pure white clothing and reveals his guilt, leading him to be excluded from Paradise forever. That would be a somewhat interesting idea, because it would mean that Mélisande's touch is what ruins Pelléas and Golaud and drives them out of Paradise, which would also explain some of the acting choices that Kirchschlager made.

As far as the singing goes, it would be unfair on everyone involved to judge the performance based on what it could have been, but having some idea of what it could have been, it's almost impossible to avoid it. In October 2003, I heard probably the best cast ever assembled for a performance of Pelléas. Now, every time I see the opera performed or listen to it, I will be comparing it to that performance. The Salzburg production would've reunited the two true stars of the Boston performance: Keenlyside as Pelléas and Gerald Finley as Golaud. Unfortunately, Finley became ill and had to cancel his performances in Salzburg, and the production really suffered in his absence. Granted, it's impossible to know for sure that Finley's presence would've been able to cure some of the production's ills, but he is such a strong actor and dramatic singer that it seems likely he could have helped. In Boston, Keenlyside and Finley made such a perfectly matched pair--Keenlyside fair, with a voice full of light and color, as changeable as water, and Finley dark, his voice brooding, passionate, seething, and rich. Playing off each other and the other singers, the two of them could've made the production go up like Greek fire, flames dancing on water. Without Finley though, Keenlyside was left to shoulder the burden of redeeming the production on his own, because none of the other principals could match him. The scenes with Keenlyside were fantastic--his incredibly detailed acting and the peerless beauty of his voice could make the silly scenery and even the ridiculous Pierrot costume seem to disappear--, but the rest of the opera could never generate any real impact or interest.

Laurent Naouri replaced Finley, and he did a fairly good job considering what he had to work with. Naouri has a fine voice, but he can't color it in the same way as Finley, and so, limited as he was by the direction, Naouri's Golaud was far less complex and developed than Finley's, even though Finley was performing a concert version. When Finley sang Golaud, he was jealous, enraged, driven mad by frustration, but he was still somehow sympathetic. Naouri was somewhat stiff, constrained by the staging, but none of his actions ever seemed to have any real force. Finley was menacing while standing still at a music stand, but Naouri seemed mildly peeved at worst and mostly walked around like a person in a museum, his arms behind his back. Golaud often admonished Pelléas and Mélisande for behaving like children, and the distinction between them and him was very clear, since Naouri was always quite adult, even when he was driven to his breaking point. This maturity made it strange to see him sit down like a pouting child in his scene with Yniold. It just didn't seem in character, like Pelléas's near-mounting of Mélisande in Act IV, scene iv; both moments were oddly embarrassing and out of place.

Much has been made of Angelika Kirchschlager's portrayal of Mélisande. Nordey is supposed to have done something different and special by making Mélisande a vamp in the mold of Carmen rather than just a "waif in a nightgown." It's a pointless effort on Nordey's part, because Mélisande-as-vamp is somewhat ridiculous, red satin dress and all. Nordey and Kirchschlager did make me question for the first time whether the man who gave Mélisande the crown that she's lost in the first act is another husband that she's seduced, just as she (inadvertantly) seduces Golaud, but after that, I just wasn't convinced. Kirchschlager tried to be more sexual than the average Mélisande, but she ended up just awkwardly sticking out one hip most of the time, so she looked hilariously like Lucille Ball in the episode in which Lucy dresses up as a "wicked city woman" and threatens to "vamp" Tennessee Ernie Ford. In the opening scene, where Golaud finds her "weeping" in the "forest" by a "fountain", she tells him not to touch her, but as soon as he backs off, she reaches for him, like Mango on those Saturday Night Live sketches. Kirchschlager looked wrecked too, like a wet Pekingese shot in the face by a makeup gun set to "whore." Vocally, she was adequate. Her voice is very pretty at times, but it also has a thin, wiry sort of edge to it that is displeasing.

Physically, Kirchschlager was just off, like she didn't know how to react to things properly. When she and Keenlyside were scampering around together, she seemed out of breath, bored, fake. The scene in which Golaud is supposed to drag Mélisande around by her hair was completely unaffecting because it was so nonviolent. Naouri was obviously holding back, and Kirchschlager reacted to all of his movements a few seconds too late, making the whole thing reminiscent of the original Star Trek when the Enterprise would get hit by something and everyone would flail around fakely on the bridge while the camera shook. The same thing happened when Golaud hit or shoved Mélisande. She ran into him and then, a few ticks too late, fell down. I used to do the same thing when I was little; my sister would barely tap me, and I'd fall over, pretending to cry. Arkel gave Mélisande the same reaction that I always wanted out of my parents too. In the scene in Act III in which Mélisande is standing on her balcony, singing to herself as her hair dries, Kirchschlager performed it almost as if in recital, facing the audience, arms outstretched. It's really the only time in the opera when Mélisande is alone, singing by herself, and instead of adding any insight into her character, it was just a performance. For all the vamp pretentions, Kirchschlager's Mélisande was just as childlike as all the nightgown-wearing waif Mélisandes, though she was a very different kind of child. Kirchschlager's Mélisande was like a rebellious child, always pushing people as far as she can, testing to see how far she could go. During some of the scenes when Golaud was raging at her, she'd have a deranged little smile on her face, as if she were pleased by all the shit she was stirring. Did she really love Pelléas or was she just amusing herself by seeing just how completely she could wreck a family? When things blow up in her face, suddenly she can't handle it, can't stay around and see what she's caused. It's an interesting take on the character, but I just don't think it's accurate.

Simon Keenlyside's Pelléas is childlike as well, but his is not the conniving childishness of Kirchschlager's Mélisande. He excels at portraying innocence, as can be seen in his Papageno, Billy Budd, and Hamlet, and it runs like a current through even his darkest characters, such as Count Almaviva and Don Giovanni. After this production is performed in London next year, Keenlyside will retire the role permanently, which I think is a bit premature. At 46, he is still tremendously agile and would often run at full speed onto the stage and immediately begin singing without missing a breath. He was like a white dart, shooting across the darkness of the stage. In addition to his physical youth, Keenlyside's face can also look remarkably young, simply with a softening of a facial expression, a hopeful gleam in the eyes, a tiny smile curving the lips. True to the character though, whose father says that he has the "grave and friendly face of someone who would not live long", Keenlyside's eyes burned in that soft face like two gas jets. His acting was perfect and subtle, the sweet eagerness, the brief flash of immature disappointment when he crumpled the letter from his friend after his grandfather told him that he must stay home. Keenlyside's Pelléas is naively in love with the world, intoxicated with the beauty of the world and the possibility of beauty. Mélisande is the physical embodiment of Pelléas's search for true beauty. This is perhaps what made the moment in Act IV, scene iv when Pelléas was lying on top of Mélisande ring so false for me.

Keenlyside's voice was not as lyrical as it was in the concert version in Boston, but that is understandable, since it must be much easier to sound beautiful when you’re standing still than when you’re scampering around. Again, I have to question Keenlyside’s decision to retire the role, because his voice sounds as youthful as his physique looks. It is suffused with light and fleeting color, everchanging, like sunlight hitting a prism and spinning rainbows. There is an occasional roughness or rawness, but those tiny flaws just add humanity to the voice, give breath to the body, heart to the sound. Though it sounds silly, I think that somehow Keenlyside’s voice was the one that Debussy heard when he was composing his opera; the sound is just so perfectly tailored to his range and the role so right for his personality. The role is sometimes given to tenors because parts of it are so high, the climactic Act IV, scene iv love scene in particular, but when sung by a tenor, or even a baryton-martin, it sounds somehow false, inauthentic. When Keenlyside sings it, the high notes are not quite as easy as they would be for a tenor, but they are more special, more beautiful, and above all, more real. They come from deep within his body—if I were being Lawrentian about it, I’d say they come from his loins. There is blood in them, a heartbeat throbs in them. When he sang that incredible, peaking “Je l’ai trouvée!”, I feel it in my body; there’s a quiver in my stomach, a clench in my throat, tears on my eyelashes.

The supporting cast was fine. Robert Lloyd has a muddy, marbly-mouthed sort of bass, and when he sings, he looks like he's gnawing on a piece of mutton. He resembled Jack Bristow after a visit to Sir Colin Davis's hairdresser. Unlike John Tomlinson in Boston, Lloyd didn't infuse his long monologues with any emotion at all. Anna Larsson as Genevieve was kind of a non-entity. She's only in two scenes, and she didn't make much of an impression, other than that she looked like an older Rachael Stirling on growth hormone (Riggzilla?). Luckily, she can sing much better than Rachael Stirling can. My mom noticed that after she introduced Pelléas and Mélisande, Genevieve left the stage with a huge grin on her face, as if she preferred Pelléas to Golaud and wanted Pelléas and Mélisande to be together. I didn't notice that myself, but not because I was ogling Keenlyside through my binoculars or anything. Again, it's an interesting take on the situation, but it wasn't taken far enough. I mean, I usually hate being hit on the head with anvils by directors (see the letter-lined cereal box), but if Genevieve really did want Pelléas and Mélisande to be together, it could have been a little more obvious. As it was, it just looked like Genevieve was happy that she'd been able to fart and get away with blaming it on Yniold or something. The little boy who played Yniold was awful, though I have to respect his bravery for performing at a prestigious event like the Salzburg Easter Festival and not completely shitting himself. He did well with the acting, but his voice was very odd, and he took everything at a snail's pace. Also, when he was singing, he sometimes looked like he was going to say, "Yniold hungry" and then start swallowing Golaud whole.

Sir Simon Rattle is supposed to be one of the foremost conductors of Pelléas et Mélisande, but I found his interpretation far inferior to Bernard Haitink’s. Haitink’s shimmered, as if lit by sunlight filtered through a canopy of leaves, whereas Rattle’s was hard and glinting, like a sheet of hammered metal. There wasn’t any softness or nuance in it. The music and the singing should flow along together, not necessarily following each other, but definitely of a piece with one another. Under Rattle, the orchestra often drowned out the singers, and the voices never seemed to interlace with the music correctly. In an interview, Rattle said that there wasn’t any need to have the fountains and lakes in the libretto shown onstage, because it was all drawn in the orchestra, but he was wrong. Instead daubing the musical canvas lightly, Rattle squirted paint everywhere and smeared it around with his hands.It pains me to agree with anything that Richard Wagner said/believed/created, since he’s been the cause of several incidences of severe ass-paralysis, but when it comes to his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, I can’t help but think that he was on to something. “Gesamtkunstwerk” means “total work of art”, and Wagner used the word to describe his belief that an operatic performance should encompass music, theater, and the visual arts. In his day, Wagner’s fear was that opera was too focused on the music and did not have enough drama (quality not quantity though, Richard!). While thankfully Wagner’s insistence on opera being performed in a darkened, silent theater has hung on, other parts of the idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk” have begun eroding little by little. Opera is like a tapestry, and the strings are being cut by feckless, moronic directors and their teams of costume and set designers (and choreographers, of course, we can’t forget the much-maligned Peggy Hickey). Pelléas et Mélisande, already somewhat separated from operatic tradition by its lack of action and its unconventional structure, is like a tapestry made of lace or cobwebs, and Stanislas Nordey, in his new production for the Salzburg Easter Festival took a blowtorch to it instead of scissors, leaving the singers to redeem the performance.

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