South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo and Maryland soprano Corinne Winters assayed the lead roles of “Pelléas et Mélisande” in a radical reinterpretation of the Debussy’s 1902 opera by Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Iowa bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen was Golaud.
The vocal performances and acting of all three principals was stunning, and the trio was well-supported by a cast consisting of Brindley Sherratt’s creepy Arkel and Yvonne Naef’s stoic Geneviève.
[Below: Pelléas (Jacques Imbrailo, left) gets to know Mélisande (Corinne Winters, right); edited image, based on a Toni Suter photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Opera.]
Before Conductor Alain Antinoglu raised his baton, we learned that Golaud is a psychoanalyst who has brought his patient, Mélisande, home for more intensive study.
In Tcherniakov’s scheme, all action takes place in the confines of a unit set, comprising the living room and adjoining dining room of a spacious modern home.
[Below: the unit set for Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande”; edited image, based on a Toni Suter photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Opera.]
Debussy’s first scene, that specifies that Golaud comes upon the weeping Mélisande in a forest, becomes a clinical one, in which Maeterlinck’s symbolic language is transformed into a therapist’s probing to understand what lies in his patient’s subconscious.
But Tcherniakov’s Golaud, even if he is schooled in the techniques of psychotherapy, is no observer of its professional ethics. He brings his patient into the center of his markedly dysfunctional family. Mélisande’s behaviors are videotaped for later perusal on a wall HDTV by Golaud, his father Arkel, his half-brother Pelléas and Golaud’s pre-adolescent son, Yniold.
[Below: Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen, right) has recorded clinical interactions with his patient, but has taken no precautions to assure patient confidentiality; edited image, based on a Toni Suter photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Opera. ]
But does it work?
Debussy’s opera is a masterpiece, but a mysterious one. It is based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1893 French drama, in which virtually all details – fountains, ocean grottos, dense forests – are designed to stand as symbols of an unending process of creation and destruction.
Director Tcherniakov has super-imposed a Freudian perspective upon Maeterlinck’s symbolic scheme (itself influenced by ancient Greek Pythagorean mysticism).
If the psychiatric theme initially seems insightful, the milieu of Maeterlinck’s symbolism provides faint support to Tcherniakov’s psychological vision of the drama. The focus of the opera quickly shifts into an examination of the interrelations of family members trapped in abusive relationships.
[Below: Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen, right), annoyed by his son Yniold (Damien Göritz, left) puts his hand over his son’s mouth; edited image, based on a Toni Suter photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Opera.]
There is some embellishment of the usual action to support such a theme. Golaud’s young “tween-age” son Yniold becomes a constant presence (superbly acted and sung by Damien Göritz) and even Pelléas’ father, portrayed as a home-treated mental patient, is present in a couple of scenes.
One effect of the Tcherniakov’s staging of the total opera in a single suite of rooms is that becomes apparent how much the opera is about Golaud, with Pelléas and Mélisande being merely the subject of Golaud’s obsessions. The staging gives such emphasis to the absorbing display of an ultimately abusive relationship between Golaud and his son as to suggest renaming the work Golaud and Yniold.
[Below: A distracted Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen, right) grasps the arm of his son Yniold (Damien Göritz, left), who has begun to wear clothing similar to his stepmother’s; edited image, based on a Toni Suter photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Opera.]
Thoughts on Tcherniakov’s Staging
Debussy’s work is a connoisseur’s opera, and I can imagine different reactions to Tcherniakov’s staging.
Those who prefer the seeming solidity of the fountain into which Mélisande’s wedding ring is lost, may scoff at a staging in which she tosses her ring over her head into a corner for Pelléas to retrieve and put in his pocket. Nor would a preference for literal observation of the libretto find comfort in the lovers lying together on the dining room table.
Nor is it clear in this staging that Golaud kills Pelléas; perhaps the latter just leaves with his roller bag to reunite himself with the dying Marcellus to whom (Maeterlinck informs us) Pelléas has been wishing to return since the opening scenes.
[Below: Geneviève (Yvonne Naef, left) and Arkel (Brindley Sherratt, second from left) and the doctor (Charles Dekeyser, right) stand watch over the dying Mélisande (Corinne Winters, center) as Yniold (Damien Göritz) reclines in the circular wall opening as his stepmother did so previously; edited image, based on a Toni Suter photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Opera.]
It’s been a century and a quarter since Maeterlinck’s play opened in Paris and 11 1/2 decades since the opera’s premiere. We have clues as to what the story’s elements meant to Maeterlinck and Debussy, but I suspect that there will never be an enduring consensus about what the work should mean to us in the 21st century.
I personally liked the voyage of discovery onto which Tcherniakov led us, while understanding the convictions of those who resist joining that voyage.
The costumes were by Elena Zaytseva. Gleb Filshtinsky designed the lighting, Tieni Burkhalter the video-design (with dramatic outside views of swaying trees and stormy skies through the dining room’s large picture windows).
For those adventuresome souls open to nontraditional productions that are ultimately respectful of the opera being staged, I recommend Tcherniakov’s production and the Zurich Opera’s cast.