Monday, June 18, 2007

Better late than never? Pelléas et Mélisande at the Royal Opera

In Act IV of Pelléas et Mélisande, the pervy blind King is trying to cop a feel on his grandson's hot, crazy wife, Mélisande. Trying to finagle a kiss out of her, King Arkel tells her that "we have such a need for beauty beside death". If this is true, then I propose that director Stanislas Nordey and his "creative" team be kept on the brink of death permanently. Maybe then they'll produce something truly beautiful and worth seeing. This production, unfortunately, definitely isn't. I won't go into much detail about the production itself, since it was basically exactly the same as it was in Salzburg last year. It still had the creepy storming-the-Uncanny-Valley hanging mannequins, the retarded Widette Pierrot costumes, and the anvilicious symbols that weren't symbols because symbols aren't supposed to be so fucking obvious, and I still giggled when the dumbass cereal boxes with their symbolic candy surprise opened to reveal a bunch of bloodstained pillows and thought "Teehee, Golaud's Princess Menses! He's become a woman!" Oh, there was one change--blind King Arkel was given some dark glasses so everyone would know for certain that he was blind. Because being told as much in the libretto and being beaten over the head with all of Maeterlinck's references to blindness didn't make it quite clear enough. Basically, Nordey pulled a Red Dragon and all but stood onstage saying, "Arkel is blind. Do you see? He can't see things, visually. Do you SEE?" (Then again, there's always the off-chance that Robert Lloyd was so embarrassed to been seen in public with so much junk in his trunk that he brought his own dark glasses as a disguise.) I'm almost pleasantly surprised that Nordey didn't give Arkel a red-tipped white cane, since it fit into the red and white color scheme and all. Then he could've said, "He's blind. Do you see? He needs a cane to find his way around. Do you see? He mostly conforms to the rest of his family, but deep down, there's a tiny bit of him that's seductive and red like Mélisande. DO YOU SEE?" I sincerely hope that Nordey never reads this...I fear it'll give him ideas.

Fortunately, after seeing the production last year and having an explosive rage-dump about it accordingly, my brain seems to have made some sort of protective layer to filter out some of the stupidity of the sets and costumes, a candy coating or brainamel, if you will. Once the shock of "Wow, Ashes-to-Ashes-era David Bowie has really let himself go...and he's become a woman!" or "Look out! It's Megatron!" wore off, I was free to focus entirely on the singing and acting, which were the only two things the production had going for it. I still had major qualms with some of the directorial choices, however, which I felt interfered with the original stage directions, the dramatic flow of the piece, and the natural acting skills of some of the singers. And at least two of those singers have some ungodly acting talent (tm Calculon), so any stemming of their respective flows should be frowned upon.

Let's start with the least egregious missteps and work our way down. First of all, I didn't like the way Geneviève addressed the audience in her soliloquy. Granted, there really isn't a good way for someone to read a letter out loud to no one (though according to the score, Arkel is supposed to be onstage during the letter-reading, and since he's blind [do you see?], she's reading Golaud's letter to him), and Geneviève is basically just there to be Mrs. Info-Dump anyway, but the head-butting (or just plain butting, considering the gigantic hindquarters on those costumes) down of the Fourth Wall was just unnecessary. Another misstep was in the scene with Yniold and Golaud. Golaud has just promised his son a quiver full of arrows if Yniold coughs up the info that Golaud wants, and in this production, Yniold started joyfully circling his father, pretending to shoot arrows at him. Unfortunately, he kept on mime-shooting arrows even when Golaud was telling him to stop crying again. It was sloppy.

Mélisande had her fair share of stupid mime tricks as well. The first, in which she held her hands motionless in front of her face to pretend to cry, I've come to accept as probably being a sign that Mélisande is playing Golaud right from the beginning, but the other two still annoy me. In the scene in the grotto (and possibly others as well), Mélisande would reach out to Pelléas behind his back and kind of slowly stagger toward him. I understand what was meant to be portrayed, but it was just handled badly, and Angelika Kirchschlager ended up looking like Pete reaching for Shaun from behind the shower curtain in Shaun of the Dead. It really seemed like she wanted to nibble his ear as a way of getting to his warm, tasty brains. Finally, Nordey didn't bother to change the most ridiculous gesture possibly in the whole opera--the half-assed Kraftwerk Orange hand gesture of death that Mélisande does in the fifth act, in which she slowly lowers her arm in front of her face, signifying to all assembled that she's gone to meet her (probably skanky) Maker, and guess what? It still doesn't work! And it really just made me think, "Those bastards! They let that woman die in an IKEA mission-style chair!"

The worst crimes against stagecraft were committed against Simon Keenlyside and Gerald Finley. During the usually rapturous scene in Act III, in which Pelléas is supposed to entwine himself in Mélisande's unbound hair, Nordey had Keenlyside strike a series of ridiculous poses (since there was no long hair to actually play with, of course). It looked like Pelléas was limbering himself up to physically pitch woo; Keenlyside had to do a bunch of lunges, which must have tried even his thigh muscles. In addition to all the squatting, Keenlyside also had to stretch his arms out to either side, presumably to portray just how fucking long Mélisande hair is, but it just looked like he was getting ready to tell a "I caught a slut in a red dress that was this big!" story. Worst of all, this douchey tai-chi negatively affected Keenlyside's singing, and anyone familiar with Keenlyside will tell you that he could be having an appendectomy and still sing beautifully, right through the anaesthetic, so tripping him up vocally is quite a feat of super-villainy.

Nordey's disservice to Finley was more a crime of omission--as Golaud, Finley usually had to stand stock-still, regardless of what was in the original stage direction. I suppose the intent was to highlight the contrast between the scampering, active, young Pelléas and the stolid, rigidly adult Golaud, which would've been fine if the Living Statue Golaud bits were limited to his scenes with Pelléas, but they weren't. The parts in which Finley was allowed to move were some of the most shocking, terrifying, effective scenes in the opera, so maybe Nordey thought that having him be so still in other parts would make the scenes where Golaud's brain finally breaks more surprising, but all they made me do was think longingly of how awesome it would've been if Finley's instincts had been trusted by the direction and he'd been allowed to move normally. Tossing a woman around by her hair will always be shocking, therefore the contrast was really unnecessary.

But even a broken clock is right twice a day, so a few pieces of direction were quite effective, and I noticed that some of the bullshit that drove me nuts in Salzburg had been changed. For a start, Arkel no longer has Robert Wilson-approved brand Elasto-lips, so he smooches Mélisande at a normal distance now instead of from across the stage. Poor Mélisande. I bet Arkel smells like aspirin and pee. This change also led to a disturbing but effective part when Golaud came in the room while Arkel was macking on (that's what the kids were calling it back in my day) Mélisande and the two of them kind of guiltily sprang apart. If Nordey had been able to orchestrate a scene in which Golaud caught Mélisande and little Yniold in a compromising position, the brain blistering would've been complete. Another refreshing change (I think it was different anyway) was the part just before Golaud murders Pelléas. In Salzburg, I think Pelléas kind of climbed on top of Mélisande, which seemed just wrong somehow, but in this version, she mounted him first, nicely supporting the Mélisande-is-a-tricksy-vamp characterization.

The single best piece of movement in the production, which perfectly brought together the words, the music, and the drama, was in Act II, scene iii when Pelléas and Mélisande were exploring the seaside grotto. In the original stage directions, it says that at this point "the moon throws a flood of light into the entrance of the grotto", and that visual is illustrated further by the rising of the music. Up until that point in this production, Pelléas had been singing with his back to Mélisande, while she staggered after him with her arm reaching out to him like a zombie looking for its keys. Then the flood of moonlight filled the music, Pelléas sang "Oh, voici la clarté!" (Oh, here is the light!), their fingers met, and it was clear that "the light" for Pelléas wasn't just the moonlight--it was the realization of his love for Mélisande. Of course, I don't think it would have been as successful in the hands of a less-talented performer than Simon Keenlyside. The raw ecstasy in his voice, combined with his overcome yet somehow crushed expression, created a truly stunning moment, in spite of the beggar on the wall who looked like he was about to yank his wank.

As far as the music went, to paraphrase Beth from NewsRadio paraphrasing a classic Reese’s Cups commercial, Simon Rattle got Wagner in my Debussy—and together they sound like crap**. Well, not crap maybe, but like a slightly melodramatic silent movie soundtrack. For example, the semi-leitmotif that followed Golaud around was made so campily menacing that I almost expected him to twirl his mustache and tie Pelléas to some railroad tracks instead of just stabbing him. Luckily, the acoustics of the Royal Opera House seemed to soften the sound a bit, compared to the metallic, almost martial quality it had in Salzburg last year. The orchestra still played incredibly loud, which I think is inappropriate in an opera in which silence plays such an important part. The singers were occasionally drowned out and sometimes had to sacrifice vocal subtlety in favor of being audible. In general, the music was too aware of the singers, which makes no sense, of course. What intrigued me so much about Pelléas et Mélisande the first time I heard was that the music flowed along like water, reflecting the surroundings of the characters (the sound of the moonlight or the subterranean cavern, for example), but not really paying much heed to the vocal lines of the singers or to the actions of the characters.

The supporting cast was fine, if not spectacular. Catherine Wyn-Rogers looked like Sharon Osbourne being partially digested by a giant blanc-mange in her hideous costume, and though her voice was pleasant, it seemed like she didn’t really bring anything to the role (though as I’ve mentioned, Geneviève is just an explication device). Tom Norrington sang fairly well as Yniold, but his rigid, stooping walk and spiky hair gave him the appearance of a beaten rent-boy. Robert Gleadow as the Doctor adopted the same “I’ve been dealt a terrific mauling” stance, so maybe there was someone running around backstage giving out savage spankings or something. His voice was black and rather flat, but the Shepherd and the Doctor are such small parts that it didn’t really matter. I find Robert Lloyd’s voice incredibly unpleasant and muffled, like his throat is lined with those soundproofing egg-crate thingies, but since Arkel is an old, rather infirm man, I wasn’t expecting a voice of splendid beauty anyway.

Angelika Kirchschlager keeps going on about how her Mélisande isn't just an innocent waif in a nightgown. Yeah, well, a shiny red dress doesn't a vamp make. She toned down the "Wicked City Woman" act she used in Salzburg, but she replaced it with...nothing. During most of the opera, Kirchschlager's face was entirely blank. Sometimes she'd mix it up and squint a little bit, kind of staring into space with an expression that could've been awe, interest, or gas. Mélisande as a character really is a blank slate, which is why Kirchschlager herself said something like "Just because we don't know about her past doesn't mean she's innocent"; the other characters just kind of project onto her what they want to see. In this production especially, there doesn't seem to be anything special (since I don't consider vaginas that special) about Mélisande that makes Pelléas or Golaud fall in love with her, apart from her beauty, or in Pelléas's case, her ability to grow hair.

Kirchschlager only seemed at ease during "Mes longs cheveux", which could have meant that Mélisande was only comfortable when she was entirely alone, but Kirchschlager's direct-to-the-audience delivery made it seem that she was comfortable because she didn't have to pretend to act anymore and could just deliver her brilliance straight to the audience. Um, is there a good way of typing out the sounds of retching? Her French was the weakest of the three main characters, and it seemed like the tension in her mouth and throat from trying to pronounce the words correctly was affecting her singing. Her voice often had that thin, wiry quality at its heart (though this too seemed to be softened by the acoustics of the house), but when she was singing more open vowels, her voice opened up a bit as well. Kirchschlager did very little to color her voice, in my opinion, and when she wanted to emote, she tended to honk, squeak, and squawk. Maybe if the opera had been Abduction from the Aviary, she would’ve seemed more at home, but when singing with Keenlyside and Finley, both masters of vocal coloration, her sound was dull.

After hearing them together in Boston, I guessed that Keenlyside and Finley performing Pelléas and Golaud in a staged production would be like flames dancing on water, and I wasn't disappointed. Their voices are surprisingly similar in many ways, like two shades of the same color, one light and one dark, and yet the contrasts are as striking as their physical differences. In Finley's voice I could hear those two elements that Golaud said he was made from--blood and iron. It was, as always, a dark, rich sound, like black earth, but it has a heat and a glow of its own, like firelight gleaming on dark, polished brass. As Golaud, Finley often moved rigidly, but when enraged could strike as quickly as blood spurting from a nicked artery. The most impressive scenes featuring Golaud were those rage-filled outbursts of frustration in Act III, scene iv, and Act IV, scene ii. The latter gave me goosebumps each time I saw it, my flesh cold with terror, a weight on my chest as if someone were stepping on it.I was also amazed by how much Finley’s interpretation had grown since Boston. In Boston he was incredible, though he ranged from “a bit cheesed off” to “in desperate need of a rage dump”, but in this production, Golaud was a real person, not just a physical embodiment of anger. He was tender in the Act II scene with Mélisande (before he discovered her missing ring, anyway), mildly censorious in Act III, scene i, and deceptively calm in Act IV, scene ii, all of which made Golaud’s inevitable descents in rage in those scenes even more shocking. It was also very impressive to see Finley’s interpretation of the role change from performance to performance. One night, during Act V, when he was trying to persuade the dying Mélisande to admit her guilt, Finley made Golaud be angry, bullying, demanding to have his suspicions confirmed so he could prove that his anger was righteous. Then, in the next performance, Finley made Golaud’s entreaties to Mélisande seem sad and pathetic, as if he were begging her to admit that she and Pelléas were, in fact, guilty of adultery, so the horrible weight of his brother’s pointless murder could be lifted from his shoulders.

Even though I’m very disappointed by Simon Keenlyside’s decision to retire the role of Pelléas, I can understand why he’s doing it. Though Pelléas is technically probably one of the most difficult roles in the baritone repertoire, it doesn’t offer very many challenges to the singing actor, which Keenlyside undoubtedly is. Pelléas is a rather flat character; he doesn’t change much during the course of the opera (though one could argue that he becomes a man, just not a very interesting man). Keenlyside still manages to make Pelléas as complex (and conflicted) as he possibly can, with his amazingly subtle facial expressions and gestures, from the look of overwhelming disappointment and quick, one-handed crumpling of his friend’s letter after Arkel forbids him to leave in Act I, to the expression of impossible disgust when Golaud reveals that Mélisande is pregnant in Act III, as well as the aforementioned “Voici la clarté” moment in Act II. Keenlyside described Pelléas as being "gauche", and that naïveté and awkwardness show in his movements; even when he is darting about as gracefully as a dancer, there is always a slight self-consciousness to him.

If Keenlyside is retiring the role because he thinks he can’t sing it properly anymore, I’m going to send him a package of Q-tips in the mail. The sound isn’t quite as bright as it was in 2003, perhaps, but it still has a core of light in it—it’s like mellow, golden afternoon sun glistening on water instead of sharp, brilliant morning sun. At times, it seemed like he was singing certain lines lower rather than higher as he had in other performances, but I’m inclined to think that this was a characterization choice rather than a vocal one, since it tended to happen in the later love scenes. In the first two acts, Keenlyside’s voice was as youthful as ever, with very little vibrato and an almost sing-song delivery.

During the love scene, though the range is probably higher, he suddenly sounded more manly; the childish sing-song was gone and a raw passion had taken its place. While Golaud’s two big scenes are ones of rage, Pelléas’s are ones of ecstatic love, and as Finley plumbed the depths of human sorrow and darkness, Keenlyside soared with joy. The climax of the love scene completely shuts me down. I get goosebumps, my heart seems to pause to listen, my blood seems to bubble, tears flood my eyes. Every time. If Finley's "Absalon! Absalon!" scene made me think, "This is what it feels like to be scared to death.", Keenlyside's Act IV love scene made me think, "This is what it feels like to be in love." It's such a huge loss to know that I'll never hear that live again.

If anyone needed more proof that the power of opera, the quality that has kept it alive for over 400 years, is the music and the voices of the performers who sing it, this production of Pelléas et Mélisande was it. Stanislas Nordey's staging sucked the color, ambience, and occasionally even the drama out of the piece, and yet Simon Keenlyside's Pelléas and Gerald Finley's Golaud managed to triumph over this nullity, to flesh out their characters with the strength and beauty of their voices and their impeccable dramatic instincts. Audiences don't need to be shocked by horrific costumes, manically rotating puzzle-box sets, silly choreography, or graphic onstage sex (from which Nordey mercifully refrained); the ability to shock, frighten, or entrance is all there in the music, just waiting for the right singers to awaken it.

**Wagner influenced Debussy's music, but Debussy never used the same huge, crushing orchestra as Wagner.

All photos ©Clive Barda

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