Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Pelléas et Mélisande, Glyndebourne, 1998 – Part 1: Turn Off Your Mind...

In an impressionist work of art nothing can be assumed to be as it appears; it's symbolic. How can people possibly complain about the setting not being literal? Isn't that the point of impressionism?

Richard Croft
What the heck is Pelléas et Mélisande about, anyway? Maeterlinck and Debussy deliberately left things vague, and I wonder if any physical production by its very nature will place more interpretive weight on the story than the composer and playwright intended. Perhaps the closest one could come would be to sit in a quiet room and silently read the score. However, this opera is much better heard and seen, even if you disagree with the vision.

That being said, I think this production by John Cox at Glyndebourne is too concrete and too referential. In a way, the beautiful and detailed stage design leaves nothing for the imagination to fill in. At the same time, you have to really stretch your imagine when such fanciful things are happening in a non-literal way on such a realistic set.  They are by a well, in a cave, by a stream, outside a tower, but always in this stately castle.

Christine Oelze
Mélisande is not literally naked on the dining room table. I mean, she is literally naked on the table, but “in real life” (whatever that is in a Maeterlinck play) she is in the woods.  The cave and well are imaginary; the huge chandelier becomes her tower, and later, the strange light Pelléas and Golaud see swaying in the distance.  Near the end of Act 5, Mélisande gets up from the armchair she’s been resting in, climbs back on the table, lies down and dies, back where she started.

So, what the heck is this opera about, anyway? Maybe all of this takes place in Goloud’s mind. As the opera opens, he is dozing in chair, perhaps dreaming of hunting. What does Mélisande represent to him? Whatever happened to his first wife? Is Mélisande a replacement for the first Mrs. Golaud? Is he trying to recapture his youth?

Two elements indicate Mélisande’s place in Golaud’s world. The stage floor is a beautiful field of flowers under “glass.” After the first scene, she wears a conventional uptight Victorian dress. The only time she looks relaxed after that is when she is wearing her nightgown; and in the tower scene with her hair down. Golaud tries to domesticate Mélisande—preserve her under glass—and she wilts and dies.  

Here is the tower scene:

Pelléas et Mélisande Act 3, Scene 1

   Mélisande – Christine Oelze, Pelléas – Richard Croft, Golaud  – John Tomlinson

I picked up this disc for a couple of reasons. 1) I really like to hear Richard Croft sing anything; 2) I really wanted to hear a tenor Pelléas; and 3) it got some really cranky reviews–if someone hates a production strongly enough to write a really cranky review, I want to see it (e.g., Christoph Marthaler’s Nozze di Figaro; review coming soon.)

Read Part 2: Relax and Float Downstream


  1. Interesting that no responses have been elicited from your two postings. The opera is somewhat problematic but I'll take it over the Messien opus any day of the week. I have been lucky to see it twice: once in Vienna in the von Karajan investiture (I now know why Nilsson wore a miner's hat with a light attached to it for a rehearsal of Walkure that HvK was directing at the Met: the conductor was not amused.) and in LA in Sellars production set in Malibu! There was alot o light this time. If I had to pick a recording I woudl probably go for the Desormiere war time recording. None of the "newer" recordings quite offered the authenticity but some were quuite fine. When it comes to DVD I made a disaastrous choice in my first pick: the Zurich performance. Vocally it is very good even though there is not a Francophone in sight.Erik Bechtof was the culprit, setting the action in some kind of frozen tundra. Very bizarre. I decided I needed to supplement this DVD with a different one and chose the Boulez. It is a live performance but there was no audience present. It was a difficult choice since the soloists in the Glyndebourne performance are all excellent. Oelze was a superb Pamina in the Eliot Gariner Flute--exquisite and what has happened to her? Then the most recent was released I snapped it up since the cast was French for the most part even though it was taped in Vienna. Melisande fits Dessay beautifullly and exposes no vocal fraility. Her husband sing Goloud; his style may be authentic but the voice is not one for the role.

    I think that one day if I have some bucks that are buring a hole in my pocket I will snap up the Glyndebourne performance.

  2. Hi David. yeah, I kinda thought someone would respond to this unusual production. If nothing else, I figured someone would argue that the opera is definitely NOT about Golaud. :)

    I really liked the Theater an der Wien DVD. I'd never seen the opera before, but it seemed like an "authentic" approach to the work. Very atmospheric.

    I find I respond to the story in any context. It's weird, strange and sad--no matter if Mélisande dies in her bed, on the dining room table, or jumping out the window.


Comments are very welcome! They won't be moderated; but rude, abusive, and/or radically off-topic posts will be removed.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...