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"Pelléas et Mélisande" at the Komische Oper Berlin

"Pelléas et Mélisande", the only completed opera by Claude Debussy, is considered to be an "opera without singing", though, to my ear, there is a plenty of engulfing ethereal melodies and voice extracts to be found. It is true that it does not look a traditional opera at all, as there is no certain structure of arias and duets following one by one – the music just flows to and fro, living along with the characters and speaking with their inner voices and hearts. "Pelléas et Mélisande" is also considered a symbolic fairy-tale revealing a fatal romance of two young lovers, who, as it seems to me, are tied together not only by strong devotion, but also by their “alienation” from other people. I have always thought of "Pelléas et Mélisande" as of an eerie and highly emotional journey through surrealistic trills and trembles of Debussy’s music to an idealistic realm of everlasting love between these figures, originating from myths and legends of far-off times. They are naive as children, natural, light-hearted and spiritually sublime, though they know everything about the world with its laws, struggles, human imperfection and evil. All in all, both the music composition and the imagery of the opera make it stand out among other works in the history of music.

The new production by Barrie Kosky premiered at the Komische Oper Berlin in mid-October seems to be of a realistic nature. His vision of «Pelléas et Mélisande» does not appeal to me that much, since it has nothing to do with symbolism, transcendentality and mysticism of the initial ideas of Maeterlinck and Debussy. In Kosky’s version of the opera you get a full overview of a trite family conflict including disgusting brutal scenes of abuse towards a pregnant woman and her icky attempt of adultery. Although this story is rather sentinental and even heart-breaking, it is, at the same time, tawdrily banal and commonplace. Unfortunately, the set, the costumes and the stage design does not make the situation a yota better: you are bound to look at one and the same gloomy maze-like background, changing its colour occasionally, till the end of the performance, puzzled by the lack of the picteresque images the artists sing about: a forest, a castle, a fountain, a cave, a sea, a ship, a well etc Where have all of these things gone? And how about some water that ought to be an essential element of the opera? It must be mentioned, Robert Wilson of the Paris Opera does not use old-fashioned carton decorations either, and his version of "Pelléas et Mélisande" is minimalistic as well, but you do feel the vibes of the metaphysical from the first glance at stage.

As for the singers of the Komische Oper, they really did a good job. Their singing must have been one of few things which lived up to the expectations of that evening. Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande), except her magnificent hair, owns a wonderful voice I really enjoyed. However, her acting was pretty excessive and, thus, tedious. Jonathan McGovern as Pelléas seemed to be a perfect match to her – the artists obviously had a certain chemistry between each other. As for his singing, sometimes it was a bit squeaky on top, but stable in the middle and low registers. Günter Papendell as Golaud drew the attention of the public by his noticeable charisma and manly velvety baritone. Gregor-Michael Hoffmann, a little boy, who portrayed Yniold, Golaud’s son, should be praised for his bravery and self-control – he managed to hold his part masterfully even sitting on Mr Papendell’s shoulders and struggling with him! The orchestra under the baton of Jordan de Souza, whose advanced technique allowed him to get a clear understanding of Debussy’s demanding score, expressed the succession of violence and lyricism contained in the music and contributed greatly to the success of the evening.

Photo: Monika Rittershaus


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