Pelléas et Mélisande at the National Opera
Debussy’s masterpiece is little know in Poland; only few times has it been presented in concert, and many years ago the Lyon Opera presented its staging in Łódź. Perhaps this hundred-year long absence of Pelléas on Polish stages prompted the reviewers of the Warsaw premiere (19 April 2002) to criticise the National Opera (while praising the playing and singing) for presenting the… piano score of Pelléas in order to save money. What the producers in fact did was to take the edition originale of the score and present the opera’s first version, from 1895. And it was a right decision. The audience could get to know a small-scale, very intimate work, far closer (than the 1902 orchestral version) to Debussy’s original idea – to create a new dimension in opera, a lyric drama.
The success of such a presentation is obviously impossible without an excellent pianist who even for a moment cannot pay any attention to the technical difficulties of the score, who has to have a perfect understanding of and a feeling for the style of Debussy’s music, who has to be capable of painting the innumerable colours and moods of this music, and, most importantly, has to be a perfect partner for the singers deprived of the conductor’s support. All those challenges were met by Krzysztof Jabłoński. One can realise how difficult the score is and how masterful Jabłoński’s rendition was by comparing his performance with the CD and video recording of a mediocre and very dull performance from Compiegne 1999 with Le Corre at the piano.
A virtually ideal singer was found for the fiendishly difficult part of Pelléas, a part lying somewhere in-between the tenor and the baritone registers. The young baritone, Mariusz Godlewski, showed an amazing emotional and vocal maturity. With a voice rich in subtle colours, Godlewski created an innocent protagonist, who is surprised himself by his budding love for Mélisande. It is hard to believe that Pelléas was Goldewski’s stage debut!
Mélisande was sung by the phenomenal Olga Pasiecznik. Of all Mélisandes I have heard (live and on numerous recordings) hers was the one that made the greatest impression on me; each word, each phrase she sang was thoroughly thought over, was full of meanings, and, what is just as important, was technically beyond the slightest reproach. Pasiecznik gave us a stunning Mélisande that was both sensual and fragile.
A completely different Mélisande was created by Anna Karasińska in a special performance (on 30th April) to mark the 100th anniversary of the premiere of the orchestral version. Karasińska’s Mélisande was lost and profoundly unhappy. Throughout the performance she was a mystery, a character as if from a different world, tortured by the secret of her origin hidden deep inside her heart, and not comprehending fully what was going on around her.
Another young baritone, Andrzej Witlewski, took the role of Golaud, and proved to be not only a very good singer but also an excellent actor. Witlewski, who had been singing on stage for just a few years, created a ruthless and a very human Golaud, who frightened Mélisande and aroused contempt in Arkel (sung movingly by a warm-voiced Mieczysław Milun). Yet Golaud’s despair and anguish in the last scenes were thoroughly moving and prompted understanding and forgiveness.
Genevieve, sung by Elżbieta Pańko, was an unhappy woman, resigned to her fate and to living in seclusion. Her poignant, nostalgic narrative about her long stay in Arkel’s castle and her beautiful letter scene made one wish that Maeterlinck had not „forgotten” about this character in the latter parts of his play. Assigning the role of Yniold to a treble instead of the usual female soprano turned out to be a happy choice with a neurotic, vocally excellent Adam Urbaniak. Czesław Gałka completed the outstanding cast with well sung Doctor and Shepherd.
The greatest asset of the performance, however, was the production itself. Drawing on Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play, the director, Tomasz Konina, showed us real emotions and relations between the protagonists; he showed us real human beings. He managed to avoid the trap of the fairy-tale land and literalness; he did not introduce us to an imaginary medieval world with castles and long hair, but gave us a moving vision we deeply care about. What is most important, the director’s vision did not go against the music; on the contrary – each image, each gesture had its roots in the music.
The world of the Warsaw production is a world after a catastrophe. Arkel’s castle is in the orchestra pit turned into a boat (or perhaps an ark), where the protagonists have found their shelter. They have managed to salvage only few objects, remains of a world long gone. Among them is an told typewriter; Genevieve looks at it lovingly and contemplates nostalgically a bundle of papers – perhaps they contains poems she wrote in her youth or maybe she is writing down the story that is unfolding before our eyes? Through the boat’s windows Golaud watches the meeting of Pelléas and Mélisande. He knows everything and therefore his reactions seems more plausible to us. At the either ends of the boat stand the young protagonists playing with a few delicate threads – Mélisande’s hair. Golaud will come up with a cigarette lighter – the threads break off and so does the happiness of two kids in love with each other.
Built on stage and lit by street lamps, the outside world, with the well, black flowers and spectres of the homeless in a cave, is hostile and dangerous; this is a world where Pelléas will meet death. Instead of complex sets, the director opted for several video projections. We see an idyllic, Chekhovian picture of a happy family: Arkel, Genevieve with two boys – Pelléas and Golaud – playing by the sea. The happy scene is watched also by Yniold who bangs on the screen in frustration. Another exquisite image – a candle and two hands which cannot meet. This is a picture that Yniold sees through a tower window and describes to his father.
The direction is extremely well thought-over and consistent; every presence on stage, every action is justified. The scene in which Golaud openly forbids Pelléas to play with Mélisande is preceded by the scene in the castle vaults. The journey through the gloomy vaults is supposed to scare Pelleas – Maeterlinck’s text does not state this openly, but the fact is quite clear in the Warsaw production thanks to sinister-looking servants appearing out of the darkness. The dark figures come from all sides – Pelléas should realise that something terrible may happen to him. Each appearance of silent characters is well justified, as, for instance, at the beginning of act IV, when Pelléas sings: The whole house seems to have come to life. You can hear people breathing and walking. Similar examples of the director’s close attention to the text abound. Nothing on stage goes against the music or against the libretto; there are no showy embellishments. It turns out that the most important thing in an opera production is to trust the music and the libretto. And we have to remember that in this case we are not dealing with an „ordinary” libretto; Debussy was, after all, deeply fascinated by Maeterlinck’s play. All the more reasons then for starting with the text when preparing a production of this opera. A producer has to be fascinated by the play just as Debussy was – only then will the action on stage be entirely in harmony with the music.
The world created by Tomasz Konina is dark and suffocating, just like Arkel’s castle, cut off from light and the sight of the sky, a fact of which the protagonists constantly sing and which is skilfully emphasized by excellent lighting design. The singers and the silent servants (figures from Maeterlinck’s play; most of their scenes were not transferred to Debussy’s opera) wear elegant, „official” clothes. Only the two title characters are dressed differently: Mélisande in a short dress and Pelléas in a leather coat and trousers – a rebel who does not fit in with the family. After his death Mélisande will put on the coat and will die in it, at last really close to her beloved.
Thanks to the director, the singers and the pianist we saw a beautiful, moving and intelligent performance.