Into the Light

Jesse Simon
martes, 31 de octubre de 2017
Berlín, domingo, 15 de octubre de 2017. Komische Oper Berlin. Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Barrie Kosky, director. Jens Larsen, Arkel. Günter Papendell, Golaud. Dominik Köninger, Pelléas. Nadine Weissmann, Geneviève. Gregor-Michael Hoffmann, Yniold. Nadja Mchantaf, Mélisande. Samuli Taskinen, Doctor / Shepherd. Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin. Jordan de Souza, conductor.

Over the past several years, Barrie Kosky has demonstrated an equal mastery of high-concept, high-production-value stagings – witness his recent Meistersinger at Bayreuth – and spare, intense character studies. For his production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which opened the Komische Oper’s 70th anniversary season, he gave us something far closer to the latter, a stripped-down, often harrowing vision that cut through the fog of melancholy and went straight for the traumas at the heart of the opera. Although often bleak and occasionally unsettling, the production – powered by a central trio of strong performances – was wholly captivating, offering lucid insight into one of the twentieth century’s great works of musical drama.

The story’s mood of claustrophobia was established even before the music had started: the set, by Klaus Grünberg and Anne Kuhn, placed a series of ever smaller openings within the frame of a painted curtain – a stage within a stage within a stage – which reduced the effective area of the action to almost nothing. It looked like the kind of set that might open up during the course of the performance to reveal something else, but instead it created a confined space into which the assembled characters could only barely fit. A series of concentric rings on the floor, which could each spin at different speeds and in different directions, ferried the characters in and out of each scene, sometimes pushing them together or drawing them apart. One was left with the sense that Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud were guided by forces just beyond their control.

The set was hardly a neutral space – and on the few occasions when it was lit with the subtle flicker of ambient video projections it took on a curious life of its own – but it offered very little to distract from the human figures at the centre of the drama. It is in these stripped-down settings, where there is little more than limbs and voices to work with, that Mr Kosky tends to be at his unsettling best. Golaud’s impulsive nature and capacity for violence came through with each gesture, and his transition from the sensitivity of the first scene to the jealousy and rage at the beginning of the fourth act was so carefully shaded as to seem wholly plausible. Pelléas, larger of frame than his half-brother, suggested a man constantly trying to fold himself up into nothing, seemingly embarrassed by the fact he was taking up any space at all. Only Mr Kosky’s vision of Arkel came across as slightly perplexing: the decision to turn him into an old pervert in Act Four may have made Mélisande’s desire to escape that much more palpable, but it also stuck out as the staging’s only real misstep. (But full respect to Mr Kosky for playing Yniold as a little brat rather than a saintly innocent.)

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Jordan de Souza, conductor. Barrie Kosky, director. Berlin, Komiche Oper, October 2017  Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Jordan de Souza, conductor. Barrie Kosky, director. Berlin, Komiche Oper, October 2017 © Monika Rittershaus, 2017

Mr Kosky’s treatment of Mélisande was perhaps the production’s greatest achievement. She was very much the heart of the story, and it was the inability of the other characters to make her fit into their own understandings that proved to be the true engine of the tragedy. Mélisande remains a mystery: we never do find out what previous traumas led to her weeping beside a pond at the opening of the story, but in this production those memories continued to haunt her profoundly, and her best scenes featured moments of manic giddiness followed by sudden flashes of horror. Where Mélisande is often portrayed as merely gloomy or merely capricious, here she was the unfathomably complex figure doomed to suffer at the hands of those who failed to apprehend that complexity.

Mélisande’s position at the centre of the production owed much to Mr Kosky’s conception, but would not have been as convincing without the prismatic performance of Nadja Mchantaf, who made an uncertain impression in the first scene, but was the opera’s dominant force from the second act onward. It was a performance in which physical and vocal expression were inseparable: in her finest scenes, Ms Mchantaf seemed to inhabit the character, articulating her inexpressible confusion and jarring shifts of mood with exceptional focus. She did not, to be sure, sing the role with the kind of glassy detachment one often hears, nor did Ms Mchantaf appear to be aiming for a conventionally pretty approach (although there were numerous beautiful moments); she drew instead upon a wealth of expressive power – aided by a lower range of fullness and clarity – to give Mélisande the volatile, perpetually haunted presence she needed.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Jordan de Souza, conductor. Barrie Kosky, director. Berlin, Komiche Oper, October 2017 Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Jordan de Souza, conductor. Barrie Kosky, director. Berlin, Komiche Oper, October 2017 © Monika Rittershaus, 2017

Günter Papendell was an impressive Golaud, managing a solemn tenderness in the first scene but admitting more and more impatience and anger into his voice as the story progressed. Although his rage in the fourth act was the most overtly uncomfortable moment of the evening, Mr Papendell ensured that the potential for violence remained a constant undercurrent from the second act onward. As the perpetually nervous Pelléas, Dominik Köninger was resolutely unheroic in manner and tone; nearly all his scenes were marked by an awkward reticence that only partially dissolved during his final meeting with Mélisande. The supporting roles were well sung, with Jens Larsen in particular delivering a deep, woody Arkel.

Conductor Jordan de Souza’s ability to draw moments of high drama from the Komische Oper orchestra came occasionally at the expense of the score’s hazy, luminous brushstrokes. The brief interlude in the dungeon scene of the third act, when Golaud and Pelléas find their way back into the light sounded merely loud, and the strings in the interlude separating the first two scenes of Act One seemed measured out with an un-Debussian formality. Yet such moments were often balanced by passages in which the feel for drama was superb: the storm at the end of the first act was captivating almost on the strength of the orchestra alone – one could hear the seeds of La Mer being planted – and the whole of the fourth act was propelled by a patient build in intensity.

At the end of the evening Barrie Kosky used the curtain call to make a brief speech reminding everyone that director Kirill Serebrennikov – whose wonderful Barbiere di Siviglia, set in the age social-media, opened the Komische Oper’s previous season – is still under house arrest in Moscow on dubious (possibly fabricated) charges of embezzlement, and that the freedom of art to express criticism is no longer something we can take for granted. After an evening of strong performances from all involved, it was Mr Kosky’s appeal on behalf of Mr Serebrennikov that received the most fulsome applause.

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