Enigmatic Affairs: Pelléas et Mélisande from the Opéra de Lille

Debussy – Pelléas et Mélisande

Arkel – Jean Teitgen
Geneviève – Marie-Ange Todorovitch
Golaud – Alexandre Duhamel
Pelléas – Julien Behr
Mélisande – Vannina Santoni
Yniold – Hadrien Joubert
Un médecin – Damien Pass
Un berger – Mathieu Gourlet

Chœurs de l’Opéra de Lille, Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth.
Stage director – Daniel Jeanneteau.  Video director – Antoine Goetghebeur.

Opéra de Lille, Lille, France.  March 20th & 22nd, 2021.  Streamed via Operavision.

This new production of Pelléas et Mélisande, by the Opéra de Lille, should certainly have been the highlight of the season at a house I’ve yet to have the pleasure of visiting in person.  A francophone cast under the direction of François-Xavier Roth, with his period instrument orchestra Les Siècles, was always going to be an extremely tempting prospect.  And while, due to the stringent sanitary regulations currently in place in the French Republic, the house was unable to welcome a live audience, they are due an immense amount of gratitude for giving us the opportunity to see this show for free, online. 

Photo: © Frédéric Iovino

The stage director, Daniel Jeanneteau, made his name initially as a scenographer before branching into directing, and his background is evident in the imposing structure he designed that dominates the stage.  What appear to be concrete walls, surround a central well, that serves as the fountain where Golaud finds Mélisande, the ‘fontaine des aveugles’ in Act 2, and the caves in the depths where Golaud takes Pelléas.  It also serves as an ever-present reminder of a history, both known and unknown, and this provides a central tenet to Jeanneteau’s staging. 

Photo: © Frédéric Iovino

Pelléas is a work about people who don’t understand themselves or each other, projecting their own preoccupations onto a woman full of mystery.  Whether it be feelings of love, jealousy, or the need to renew the castle, Mélisande here is a figure both lacking in, and full of, agency.  Jeanneteau provides a quite unexpected twist at the end of Act 4 that left me shocked – no spoilers – and throughout he gives us a constant sense of Mélisande being a figure that Pelléas, Golaud and Arkel are all obsessed with in their various ways.  Yet how much of this she is responsible for and in control of, is something Jeanneteau keeps us guessing about.  In the same way that characters appear in the distance on stage, seemingly viewing events that they later appear to have no knowledge of, or that counteract what characters say.  For instance, we see Pelléas and Mélisande sitting at the back of the stage motionless, while Yniold peers into their room.  Or Golaud walking in the background as Pelléas and Mélisande visit the ’fontaine des aveugles’.   Is the kingdom full of people who lack understanding of what is happening?  Or is Jeanneteau pointing to something deeper and darker – a disturbing undercurrent of abuse, with Mélisande just one of many?  Certainly, the way that Mélisande, coiffed with a short boyish hairstyle, sings about her long locks and Pelléas claims to play with them, suggests a degree of fantasy.  What Jeanneteau gives us is a staging that brings out the contradictions in the work, that makes us reflect on the characters, their true natures and inclinations, and makes us as audience members search deep inside of ourselves for the answers.

Photo: © Frédéric Iovino

Musically, the performance was helped by the superb clarity of diction throughout the cast.  Although, it must be admitted that across the board there was a tendency for final ‘r’s not be audible enough where required.  Vannina Santoni sang Mélisande in a crystalline soprano that gave her song from the tower a beguiling beauty.  She savoured the text, bringing out a range of colours in the tone and the brightness of her soprano contrasted with the mysterious darkness of her character.  Santoni was fearless in her physicality, and succeeded in the seemingly contradictory objectives of making much of the vocal line, while at the same time bringing out the complex mystery of her character.  As a tenor, Julien Behr brought an equally bright voice to the role of Pelléas.  The handsomeness of his tone gave much pleasure, as did the ease on top when he opened up in Act 4.  There was an openness to his character, a trusting lovingness that I found utterly convincing.  Similarly, he caressed the line with lyrical beauty in his ode to Mélisande’s locks. 

Photo: © Frédéric Iovino

Alexandre Duhamel grew in stature as Golaud as the evening developed.  At first, I found his baritone rather soft-grained and lacking slightly in focus.  By the time he got to the spying scene with Yniold, the voice had found its core and he was utterly gripping in his obsession and determination – all sung with absolute clarity of the text.  Similarly, in Act 5, he pulled right back on the tone, his desperate imprecations to Mélisande sounding utterly broken, and the tragedy of this once proud man, now utterly broken was compelling.  Jean Teitgen gave us an Arkel sung with warmth in a rounded, inky bass and much less of the benign, docile figure we often see.  Marie-Ange Todorovitch sang Geneviève’s scene in a rustic contralto – although the letter scene sat quite awkwardly in the passaggio for her, the registers rather separate.  All credit to the young Hadrien Joubert for his total command of the role of Yniold, and Damien Pass also made an impression as the Médecin with his handsome bass-baritone, perhaps we’ll hear his Arkel one day. 

Photo: © Frédéric Iovino

Roth conducted a reading that was much more passionate and fuller of surging feeling than we often hear in this work.  His tempi were swift, not afraid to push forward and reveal surging emotions underneath.  Naturally, the period instruments made for a fascinating sound world – the strings especially, with the sparing use of vibrato bringing an austerity to the texture, that lent itself well to the darkness of the score’s nocturnal tinta.  When the textures brightened, as in those cries of ‘clarté’, the distinctive colours of the period winds gave the orchestral sound a rightness that felt unmistakable.  The quality of the orchestral playing was simply outstanding.

Photo: © Frédéric Iovino

This Pelléas is more than worth a few hours of your time.  Superbly played, conducted with great intelligence, and very satisfyingly sung, we were given a staging that made us search deep for answers in ourselves and in the work.  Jeanneteau gives us a staging that is both thought-provoking and surprising, offering us a vision of the work that lends itself ideally its enigmatic nature.  With excellent diction across the board, this is a Pelléas that must be seen. 

2 comments

  1. Thank you for the insightfull review.
    I would like to know what did you mean when you say:
    Marie-Ange Todorovitch sang Geneviève’s scene in a rustic contralto.
    You use the same word rustic about Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo was efficiently dispatched as Dame Marthe, her rustic mezzo in good shape.
    Can you describe how a rustic voice sounds?

    • Thanks for the comment, I clearly need to start using more adjectives. Rustic is the opposite of glamourous, something that is serviceable, does the job and honest-sounding.

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