I watched *Pelléas et Mélisande* online on April 29, 2021. It was a production from the Grand Theatre of Geneva, a performance from January 2021. Here’s how it was described on the operavision website:
“In a perfect synergy of the arts, choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet, together with the legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic, stage Pelléas et Mélisande as a cosmic dream. Like Debussy through his impressionistic music, the performers and creators of this production dispense with any illustration and instead bring out the hidden emotions of the characters.”
I love *P & M* but it was the name Marina Abramovic that sealed the deal. She is something else, an endlessly inventive and transgressive artist. I knew that her take on *P & M* would be worth seeing.
The opera itself is rather abstract so it easily lends itself to a wacko abstract production and this was definitely wacko and abstract. The setting was a shiny black floor, a white neon circle around the playing area, and starry, spectral projections along the back wall. The opening scene featured six dancers, clad in black bodysuits with their faces covered by sci-fi alien hoods, playing a large-scale hexagonal version of Cat’s Cradle with sparkly pieces of string. The sparkly string came back later in the opera, representing Mélisande’s long hair, that was very effective.
The prominent use of dancers could go either way - - I don’t like busyness for the sake of busyness and definitely don’t like it when you get the feeling that you need to be entertained or else you’ll be bored. I walked out of a Met production of Mozart’s *Così fan tutte* a few years ago for this reason. The production was set in 1950s Coney Island and the director staged the overture with circus performers doing their acts, encouraging applause from the audience, who should have been listening to the music. Anyway, the choreography was fully integrated in this production, it added another level of expression and wasn’t simply a distraction.
One other element I want to mention: the costumes were designed by Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen. Talk about a match made in heaven, she was the perfect choice for this show. I had seen some of her designs online and found them rather unwearable, so I was relieved to see that she could make stunning clothes for the singers and dancers, but things that didn’t impair their movement.
Let’s talk about the singers, shall we? Interesting how the opera is called *Pelléas et Mélisande,* but the most interesting character is Mélisande’s husband, Golaud. He was played in this production by Leigh Melrose, who has a dark, brooding voice and brought out all of the complexity of his character. The scene late in the opera when he terrorizes Mélisande was suitably hair-raising. I’m not sure if it’s Melrose or Debussy (or Maeterlinck, who wrote the text), but I found myself also feeling sorry for Golaud.
Pelléas can be played either by a tenor with a good low voice or a baritone with a good high voice. Jacques Imbrailo is a baritone and sang beautifully though I might have asked for a bit more radiance in his singing, more of a sense of what was going on behind the words. I thought he looked a little familiar - - it turns out he played the title character in the *Billy Budd* I saw at BAM in 2014. I went back to my review (this website is so handy that way) and saw that I was underwhelmed by him in that show, too.
Mélisande is one of the most enigmatic characters in opera history. She seems like a creature from another planet, she doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on or what she’s doing in that place with those people. My favorite example of this is in the first scene, when Golaud first finds her, in the woods. He says, “You seem very young. How old are you?” And she says, “I’m starting to get cold.” Hilarious!
Mélisande is another role that’s written between the cracks of two vocal categories - - it could be sung by a soprano with a good low voice or a mezzo with a good high voice. This production had Mari Eriksmoen, who’s not just a soprano, she’s a high soprano, but with plenty of luster in her lower range. She sang beautifully and captured the ambiguity of Mélisande without making a big deal about it. She had a compelling stillness.
Conductor Jonathan Nott treated the opera like a regular opera and not like a ponderous allegory for whatever. This was a nice change and made a nice contrast to the highly conceptual production.