Pelléas et Mélisande

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Composer: Claude Debussy

Libretto: Claude Debussy

Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck

First Produced: Opéra Comique Paris, 1902

Present Company: Zurich Opera, 2004

Director: Sven-Eric Bechtolf

Sets: Rolf Glittenberg

Costumes: Marianne Glittenberg

Lighting: Jürgen Hoffmann

Video Director: Felix Breisach

Orchestra: Zurich Opera Orchestra

Conductor: Franz Welser-Möst



Pelléas: Rodney Gilfrey

Mélisande: Isabel Rey

Golaud: Michael Volle

Arkel: László Polgár

Yniold: Eva Liebau

Geneviève: Cornelia Kallisch



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 38.71 GB

Bit Rate: High (ca 30 Mbps)

French DTS-HD MA 5.1

French PCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, German & French

Region: All

Opera runtime: 160 minutes

TDK/Arthaus Musik, 2012



Conception & Staging: B

Costumes: B

Casting: A-

Singing: A

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A-

Video Direction: A-

Image: B

Audio: A

Extras Features: F

Recommendation: B



As much loved as it is, Debussy’s music is something of a dead end, musicologically speaking. While there are comparisons to Ravel – especially in their lone string quartets – and passing influences in the music of Arnold Bax and Frederick Delius, Debussy’s expression of what is often called “Impressionism” – a curious term when applied to post-Beethoven music in general – is as idiosyncratic as it is seductive, sensuous and erotic – nowhere more so than in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande. The story, based on Maeterlinck’s play, is, on the surface at least, about forbidden love and jealousy. But the context against which this narrative takes place is equally important and bursting with arcane symbolism.  Arkel is the ruler of the kingdom of Anteros, which is falling upon hard times and worse. He has two sons, Golaud and Pelléas.  Golaud discovers Mélisande by a stream (the waters of creation, perhaps) and brings her, hopefully, back to his home where they marry. Mélisande, for her part, doesn’t really know who she is or how she got there. More than a simple amnesiac, Mélisande is incomplete, even in marriage. Pelléas, is the younger son, always a difficult role in a royal court, since he has no future either. The stage is ripe for Pelléas and Mélisande to find completion in each other, and their love for one another becomes a kind of madness, oblivious to consequences. (Most of this is my take on the story; Maeterlinck, I am sure, would see it differently.)



Debussy’s music strikes many listeners on first blush as curiously antithetical to the premise. It is easy to mistake its rich harmonic texture and exotic orchestral color as erotic, when it is more aptly described – and felt, if you give it its due – as longing, as contained, suppressed sexual energy.  Like much of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Debussy’s deliberate avoidance of harmonic resolution here serves to keep the lovers apart or, at least, confined in their lust, and unhappily so. Wagner’s technique is the more obvious: there can be no mistaking the harmonic intent of the opera’s Prelude that reaches its dramatic climax in the extended second act duet, interrupted, as it were, by the husband. There is no release for the lovers and the betrayal is crystal clear. In Pelléas et Mélisande, however, Debussy employs harmonic ambiguity to keep matters murky, unconsummated. It also keeps Golaud’s jealousy burning bright despite insufficient evidence for conviction.  The lovers, for their part, sing through the embrace and the kiss, but they are never quite engaged. Everything about them is a cipher, parenthetical, mysterious, and ultimately, deserted.



The staging for this 2004 Zurich Opera production eschews the mystical/fantasy elements of the story that are usually manifest on stage and instead attempts to convey the death of love and creation from the outset.  The direction is faithful to its concept to a fault, to the point where there are, you will think, missed symbolic opportunities. Director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, with sets by Rolf Glittenberg and lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann, offers a monochromatic vision of permanent winter. Abandoned relics of an industrial age – various shapes of corrugated materials frame and isolate the characters and, in one extended scene, a vintage Citroen – sit portentously but inert on the stage. The characters speak indirectly to each other and act with one another through lifeless, lookalike mannequins. The actors themselves rarely touch, and when they do, they seem unaware of touching. The symbolism is explicit and frightening, if you don’t find it comical. (If you ever wondered what happened to the bodies of the victims in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this production might offer a clue.)


A side note: As the opera went into production, Maeterlinck, who reluctantly sanctioned the final libretto, eventually became hostile to its very existence, very likely for personal rather than artistic reasons, and refused to attend performances until almost twenty years after the opera’s premiere, declaring that he was wrong to have ever opposed it.



A little like the soprano or tenor, who, on their death beds, rally sufficient breath for a climactic aria, all of the singers here are in robust health, vocally and otherwise.  The mannequins nothwithstanding, there is nothing hollow about their physical and vocal presence on stage. This is particularly and awkwardly true of Isabel Rey, whose Mélisande is a little too pneumatic to be taken as the waif we understand she is. Rodney Gilfrey makes for a handsome and fervent Pelléas; Michael Volle, a darkly troubled, but compelling Golaud; László Polgár, an ailing, yet authoritative Arkel; and Eva Liebau, a frantic, if a little too mature Yniold. The Zurich Opera Orchestra plays lusciously for conductor Franz Welser-Möst, who keeps the pulse moving along so as not to lull us into unconscious reverie.



Video & Image

The challenge with monochromatic sets, lighting, makeup and costume design is to be able to keep things interesting enough for we who are accustomed to color and movement. There are subtle changes in overall color cast from various shades of blue to green from scene to scene, and lighting contrast is altered for various subtle effects. All the same, I wouldn’t be surprised if this production worked better on stage than in video, even in high-definition - something we get glimpses of when the camera pulls back to take in the full stage. This is the true intent of the designer, and a case where close-up video direction works against itself. We’ve seen strong color filtering before (two recent and very different production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice come to mind) but the color cast is limited to scenes, not the entire opera, as it is here. Jürgen Hoffmann’s ice-blue lighting design needs a larger context to work, specifically the framing of the stage by the theatre itself.  Aside from this, the video transfer is adequate to the task and offers no problematic artifacts or compression issues.




If we close our eyes to the events and characters on stage, the results are wondrous, indeed.  I am often inclined to the 2-channel stereo mix over the surround on operas on Blu-ray because of the improved focus and, oddly enough, more realistic aural staging. But here, the 5.1 lossless surround mix seems just right: a larger than life presentation, resonant and just a little hollow.  The orchestra and voices are in excellent balance, neither one drowning out the other, even in climactic moments.



Alas, TDK offers none.




This production of Pelléas et Mélisande, and the Blu-ray from TDK (or Arthaus Musik, which is identical), get generally mixed to poor reviews, largely due to the staging. Contrary fellow that I am, I confess to rather liking Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s use of mannequins. It struck a powerfully resonant chord somewhere in my psyche. At an intellectual level, I also appreciated the monochromatic, desaturated stage, which seemed to me quite adequate to express desolation. However, the snow worked against this for me since it continually reminded me of reality (as did the Citroen.) I kept asking: why aren’t these people freezing or slipping on its surface? But beyond that, I felt it an unnecessary addition and therefore annoying. The singing was very good throughout, and the orchestra was well directed, complementing them as I expect the composer would have enjoyed.  I will say that I felt the production engaging enough to give it a second go, and I confess I found less to quibble with.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

October 25, 2013

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