‘Going Deep’ in an Opera

Opus Osm

The National Opera's staging of Pelléas and Mélisanda emphasizes the theme of inept communication of emotions.

‘Going Deep’ in an Opera

Getting to the Bottom of an Opera’s Meaning, when the Singers Just Stand and Sing

Claude Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisanda revolves around one of the oldest themes in opera and drama: jealousy and remorse. Don’t expect a lot of action on stage, though; in this opera, the real action lies deep.

Golaud (sung by Jiří Sulženko), suspects his half-brother Pelléas (Philippe Do), of sleeping with his wife, Mélisanda (Kateřina Jalovcová). Golaud murders Pelléas. Wounded by Golaud, Mélisanda dies after childbirth, leaving Golaud with only his remorse.

What makes this drama special is the emphasis that Maurice Maeterlinck’s play and Debussy’s adaption place on emotional distance and darkness. Again and again, the characters remark on the forbidding forests that overshadow the castle, cutting out the sun. Even the sea they look out on is covered in impenetrable mists.

This obscurity mirrors the darkness of the relations. Pelléas and Golaud barely communicate, except for threats, as when Golaud forces Pelléas to look into the abyss beneath the castle. All of the characters are metaphorically blind, and their blindness to each other is matched by the blindness of Arkel (sung by František Zahradníček), the king of Allemonde, or “all the world.” Pelléas and Mélisanda meet at “blind man’s well,” so called since it used to cure blindness, but now even its powers have failed. Pelléas and Mélisanda too are blind — to their passion for one another and the entanglements this creates.

Opus OsmHow does the Czech National Opera do justice to this metaphor? Rocc, the director, has opted for a stringently minimalist approach. His set is bare, devoid of furniture and props except for a small glass ball shaped like an apple. Mélisanda’s death bed scene is played without the prop of a bed, and even her baby, who is supposedly presented to her at her dying moments, is absent.

Wire mesh curtains run in parallel on the stage, opening and closing to let the characters through. Thus, while the libretto has the lovers holding hands, Rocc separates them through multiple screens. Mostly, however, they walk on parallel tracks, passing each other, often facing straight ahead. Much of the action takes place in semi-darkness, spotlights sometimes illuminating the characters who motionlessly sing.

At times this works, making us focus on conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud’s fluid and masterful presentation of Debussy’s gorgeous music. It is a tribute to the singers that, given their immobility, they still make this an enjoyable opera.

Special credit too must be given to the lighting of mesh curtains. The shifting forms it make provides much of the action that elsewhere is lacking. Now, if only the singers were allowed to make eye contact! — oo

– James Mensch

Pelléas and Mélisanda premiered at the National Theatre Sept 30 and Oct 2. The final 2012 performance is set for Nov 4, with further performances late next spring.

Photo Credits: The Czech National Opera

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