La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Munich Opera's Pelleas et Melisande: Two Contrasting Views

Letter from Munich : Pelleas et Melisande

Joseph So 


Ironically, this production photo captures one of very few instances where Pelleas and Melisande actually touch in the three-plus hour of the opera (Photo: Wilfrid Hosl)



For the past eight years, I’ve been making my annual “pilgrimage” to Munich in July, to attend its excellent Münchner Opernfespiele.  Whether it’s a warhorse or a rarity, I can always count on an enjoyable performance, with outstanding singers and great conductors leading the brilliant Bavarian State Orchestra. Less consistently excellent have been the opera productions. Contrary to what some of my fellow critics may think of my musical tastes, I am not so much a traditionalist as I’m an “operatic omnivore” – I’m open to all sorts of staging from traditional to the avant garde.  My bottom line for Regieoper is it must be carefully thought out and executed with sensitivity, and it must in some way illuminate the music and/or the text.  In a nutshell, there should be no addition or omission of music without really good reason. Also to be avoided is the addition of new characters and changes to the libretto, and no major alteration of the thematic material and interrelationships of the characters. In other words, any re-interpretation has to make sense, not just to the stage director but also to the audience.

I’ve seen some striking director-driven productions in Munich, such as Palestrina, Ariadne auf Naxos, and this season’s Arabella.  Sadly, I’ve also seen some that didn’t work for exactly the reasons I mentioned above. For me, an example of a misguided production was the Martin Kusej Rusalka, and the Don Giovanni by stage director Stefan Kimmig. To that list I must now add this year’s new production of Pelleas et Melisande. The Regie is Christiane Pohle, known for her work in German Schauspiele. This represents her first foray into opera directing. I attended the third performance on July 4. By then, all the audience hostility towards the director had died down – in any case, she wasm’t there so there was no point in booing. There were just a lot of long faces in the audience. 

It's not overstating the case when I say this production received an almost uniformly hostile reaction from the audience and largely negative reviews from the press. Still, I believe it is important to present both sides of the argument. To that end, I have invited a fellow journalist, Richard Rosenman, to write a guest review for La Scena Musicale.  Below is his review, followed by mine.

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Pelleas et Melisande (Review 1) 
Richard Rosenman, Editor Wagner News, Toronto Wagner Society

The 1902 premiere of Pelleas et Melisande was not well received. One critic
complained about the work’s ”constant nebulosity” and its “monotonous recitative, unbearable and moribund”. These remarks were missing the point because they judged the work by conventions which both Maeterlinck and Debussy renounced.

History repeats itself. The premiere of the new Bayerische Staatsoper production, directed by Christiane Pohl, had a similarly hostile reception, with booing and members of the audience walking out. Though the subsequent performances were better tolerated, the Staatsoper took it so seriously that the planned open air public streaming of it was cancelled and substituted without explanation by a performance of Arabella. Critics almost unanimously, condemned the production, blaming the implied disaster on Ms Pohl, a noted theatre director but one without opera experience, this being her first incursion into this medium.

Blaming a rookie opera director is easy but unfair. Seasoned ones often produce worse disasters, many paying less attention to the work than she did, for the result, though not to their liking, nevertheless shows that she did her homework, something very clear if one examines the principles of Maeterlinck’s plays which she evidently did. Christiane Pohl carefully and methodically removed all references to the original setting as visualized by the author and the composer. The abstract staging does not comply with most viewers’ expectations. Some are offended by the same set throughout. Most cherished features of the plot are missing to the despair of the literal minded.

The one set, a generic hotel lobby cum impersonal government office, is a place of ceaseless traffic of silent men and women, coming from and disappearing into nowhere through a pair of automatic glass doors, oblivious of the protagonists and, in turn, ignored by them. The two entities are the protagonists on one side and on the other the rest of the world about them, both unaware of each other’s existence. The set is made up of its static part and its mobile part, the last of the anonymous superficially autistic visitors and the local hands, these in a permanent if purposeless activity, bringing out, taking in, re-arranging or stacking chairs, symbols of triviality (for it could have been any other overlooked part of our lives), the two together making the world, the background, the stage, on which the plot is acted out.

The principles of Maeterlinck’s plays are the obvious source of the director’s
interpretations and decisions. Symbolism, as other “isms,” is a word casually dropped but perhaps not understood, especially the Maeterlinck’s version. As set out in his own words, he sees “a theatre of the soul, introducing passive and static characters, the daily lived tragedy and the fatale sublime hero”. He considers his “static drama a stage where actors were to speak and move as if pushed and pulled by external forces, by fate acting as a ‘puppeteer’”. The stress of their inner emotions should not be allowed to compel their movements. He would refer to his cast of characters as “marionettes”. And marionettes were for him metaphors of human condition.

It seems that the director is familiar with these precepts and has applied them in her vision of the work. There is a disconnection between text and action and between the protagonists themselves. When death comes to the title pair, they both walk out to the nowhere from which all the “marionettes” come.

The title characters, ardent young Canadian baritone Elliot Madore and a cool and remote Elena Tsalagova, both distinguished by clarity of tone and absence of any disturbing vibrato. Golaud’s, Markus Eiche, grey hair speaks a lot about his relationship with Melisande. Effectively menacing and foreboding. Arkel, Alaster Miles, did not receive the applause he perhaps deserved. His acting was most closely tied with his text. By carrying a chair with him at all times, he is the living connection with that artifact that overwhelmingly dominates the mindless activity on stage and ignored by everyone else. Hanno Eilers, Ynold, a boy soprano and the most applauded, in a role often given to a girl.

The orchestra fine under all circumstances, sounded even better in the more friendly acoustics of the Prinzregenten Theater. It was less brash and finely adapted to the nuances of the score. It was a success so denied to the performance.

Markus Eiche (Golaud) with unnamed guests (Photo: Wilfrid Hosl)

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Pelleas et Melisande (Review 2)
Joseph So

If I had to use one word to underscore this production, it would be “ambiguity.”  The Debussy opera is enigmatic and full of ambiguities to begin with. Christina Pohle, instead of illuminating the text, adds to the ambiguities through her peculiar staging. She wants to highlight the isolation and the disconnection of the main characters. To that end, we have a single unit set (by Maria-Alice Bahra) resembling a hotel lobby, with a central reception area. The main characters are found in or around the counter, standing rigidly and silently, or occasionally moving around slowly. At times, the static quality of the staging has the feel of a surrealist René Magritte painting.  All the while, there are extraneous characters coming and going – a couple of animal heads, a woman in a white long dress with a huge white wig, or a bunch of people caught between the sliding doors. What has any of these silent actors got to do with the opera is anyone’s guess.

The lovers (Pelleas and Melisande) hardly touch each other, let alone embrace or kiss.  Golaud spends a lot of time going around the lobby pruning branches off the ornamental bushes. Arkel, normally portrayed as old and infirmed in most productions, walks around carrying a chair with him.  Golaud kills Pelleas dead, but he mysteriously revives and walks off stage after a few minutes. Similarly, Melisande doesn’t die – she just walks off stage at the end. The finale has all the principals sitting in chairs facing the conductor, much like a sitzprobe early in the rehearsal process. In my mind, these directorial touches are not brilliant or refreshing, but they reflect a dearth of ideas.   

(l. to r.) Elena Tsallagova (Melisande) Hanno Eilers (Yniold) Markus Eiche (Golaud) (Photo: Wilfrid Hosl)


With a setting as far removed from the original libretto as this production, it creates a great many contradictions between the text and what one sees on stage. While the directorial concept of emphasizing the isolation and disconnectedness of the main characters is a good one, it alone is not enough to sustain a three-hour opera, especially when so much of the visual elements make little sense.  In my mind, disconnectedness and psychological isolation do not mean individual emotions are not deeply felt – there would have been no love story otherwise!  Pohle’s straitjacket of a vision leads to a diminution of the emotional power of the love between Pelleas and Melisande. In such a serious opera, why Pohle wants the Doctor (an overweight singer in Peter Lobert) checking his blood pressure not once but twice (!) is beyond me. This kind of staging only serves to obfuscate rather than illuminate, and the production comes across as self-indulgent, muddled, misguided, and – using the most damning adjective one could use in staging – boring.   


All is not lost however, as musically it was very fine. Top honours go to Russian soprano Elena Tsallagova as a luminous Melisande. She’s well matched by the youthful and ardent Pelleas of Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, who combined beautifully robust tone with an easy high register – those high A’s in Act 3 were a cakewalk for him.  German bass-baritone Markus Eiche was a superbly sung and deeply felt Golaud. Veteran English bass Alistair Miles gave the role of Arkel the requisite gravitas, despite the indignity of having to carry a chair with him around the stage. Even boy soprano Hanno Eilers (Yniold) got a big round of applause at the end. The star of the evening was Greek conductor Constantinos Carydis, who coaxed exquisite sounds from the marvelous Bayerische Opernorchester.  Perhaps that was sufficient compensation for some people, but it makes me sad as it could have been so much better, given the superb musical forces.  

Canadian baritone Elliot Madore (Photo: Wilfrid Hosl)

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