In the Darkness: Pelléas et Mélisande at the Stadttheater Klagenfurt

Debussy – Pelléas et Mélisande

Arkel – Nicolas Cavallier
Geneviève – Alexandra Kloose
Golaud – Oliver Zwarg
Pelléas – Jonathan McGovern
Mélisande – Ilse Eerens
Yniold – Lisa-Maria Leibtschnig
Un médecin / un berger – Taras Kuzmych

Chor des Stadttheaters Klagenfurt, Kärntner Sinfonieorchester / Nicholas Carter.
Stage director – Éric Ruf

Stadttheater Klagenfurt, Klagenfurt, Austria.  Saturday, February 23rd, 2019.

Tonight marked my first visit to the Stadttheater Klagenfurt.  It’s a house that I’ve wanted to visit for a while, as the casting always strikes me as imaginative and intelligent, clearly the work of someone who understands voices.  It’s not the easiest place to get to.  The small local airport is serviced by flights from Vienna, Hamburg, Cologne and London, and Ljubljana is only a short bus ride away, over the border into Slovenia.  The downtown is small and pretty, and is certainly an agreeable place to pass an hour or so.  The theatre itself is intimate in scale and also appears to be home to an excellent orchestra.

Photo: © Arnold Pöschl

This staging of Pelléas et Mélisande by Éric Ruf is a co-production between Klagenfurt, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Toulouse and Dijon.  Tonight, revived by Laurent Delvert, it made for an appropriate framework for the action.  Set in a grim, dark world where the sun never shines, there’s an interesting hint of what could lie beyond, as the inside of the castle appeared to be brightly lit, suggesting that what the characters revealed to each other on the outside, was far from who they were on the inside.  The tower scene, for instance, saw Mélisande singing from a golden room, the light amplifying her bejewelled costume (Christian Lacroix).  The visuals certainly reflected the darkness of the score’s tinta.  And yet, I left with a feeling that as a staging it was rather prosaic, always taking the piece at face value but not wishing to delve beneath to dig out the richness of symbolism that lies below.  Not penetrating the deeper levels of a work that contains so many mysteries, the most mysterious of which is Mélisande herself.  What was particularly interesting was how Ruf made her an emotionless figure upon whom Pelléas, Golaud and Arkel projected their own fantasies of who she should be and what they wanted from her.  The show had clearly been fluently prepared and personenregie was efficient, although it frequently felt that characters were a little too fond of delivering their lines directly into the audience.

Photo: © Arnold Pöschl

Although, ultimately that might have been the point.  These are people who barely relate to each other, who barely look each other in the eyes.  Even when Pelléas and Mélisande declare their love to each other, I was left with a lingering sense that Mélisande may just have been admitting to it to get out of that moment.  Ilse Eerens was a fascinating Mélisande.  The voice bright and crystalline with a beguiling purity of tone.  Her French was impeccable throughout, drawing on the language to colour the tone.  In Act 2, scene ii, as she sang ‘c’est quelque-chose qui est plus fort que moi’, she drained the colour from the tone, making it almost white.  There was a simplicity of utterance to her singing, combined with that striking use of vocal colour, that I found both sophisticated and impressive.  Undoubtedly a notable role debut for this fine Flemish soprano.

Photo: © Arnold Pöschl

Jonathan McGovern really does have the ideal voice for Pelléas.  The owner of a youthful, handsome baritone with a full, warm middle and a ringing top, he’s also a highly engaging actor.  McGovern brought out a range of vocal colour, caressing the language in the same way as he caressed Mélisande’s hair.  He has an ease on top that is remarkable, demonstrated in a tower scene that saw the voice soaring ever higher, seemingly without limits.  His ardent, heartfelt vocalism and the touching innocence of his acting gave much pleasure.

Photo: © Arnold Pöschl

Oliver Zwarg was a massive-voiced Golaud, the voice firm throughout the range, rising to a big, penetrating top.  His Golaud was clearly broken from the start and, as the evening progressed, became even more so.  It was harrowing to see him drag Mélisande across the stage and his acting, as he lost control, was devastating.  His Golaud was always securely sung and healthily vocalized.  His diction, however, while good in many respects, wasn’t quite as clear as it could have been with words indistinct at times – and this is a piece, more than any other, that lives through the text.  His is a notable instrument and one I’d definitely like to hear in the big Wagner parts.

Photo: © Arnold Pöschl

In the remainder of the cast, Nicolas Cavallier was a rich-voiced and resonant Arkel.  Alexandra Kloose was a fruity Geneviève, although the voice sat someplace more south of the note than was optimal.  Lisa-Maria Leibtschnig’s Yniold was sung in a fresh and easy soprano.  The orchestra, the Kärntner Sinfonieorchester, is a credit to the house.  The quality of the playing was most impressive.  String intonation was true and, apart from a single split note at the end of Act 4, the brass played very well.  Getting to hear this score in an intimate house was a revelation.  Nicholas Carter made the string textures light, almost transparent, allowing the all-important winds to come through the textures.  It meant that whenever the score came into the light, as in the ‘clarté’ of the grotto scene, Carter and his orchestra brought out an astonishing brightness of sound.  He set some flowing tempi, although the end of Act 4 felt a little restrained, not quite taking flight in starry abandon.  He was an extremely sympathetic accompanist to his singers, always allowing them through.

Photo: © Arnold Pöschl

This Pelléas had so much that gave pleasure, not least in its two titular protagonists, both with ideal voices for their roles, and in Zwarg’s deeply felt and passionately vocalized Golaud.  The house orchestra was also most impressive.  The staging was certainly serviceable and presented the action fluently and logically, if not quite exploiting fully the symbolism beneath.  A fine introduction to this beautiful house.

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