She’s on a boat

On Tuesday I went back to my old stomping ground, the Wiener Staatsoper, a return not particularly highly anticipated by me nor, I assume, by anyone else. With the Staatsoper you roll your dice and you take your chances—even the most formidable casts can be undone here by a total lack of rehearsal. But sometimes you get lucky (and not always at the performances with all the famous people). And despite having only one shot, this time I did.  This dark, dreamy Pelléas, a “new” production by Marco Arturo Marelli, is surprisingly worth seeing.

Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande. Wiener Staatsoper, 6/27/2017. Conducted by Alain Altinoglu, “new” production directed and with sets and lights by Marco Arturo Marelli, costumes by Dagmar Niefind. With Olga Bezsmertna (Mélisande), Adrian Eröd (Pelléas), Simon Keenlyside (Golaud), Franz-Josef Selig (Arkel), Bernarda Fink (Geneviève), Maria Nazarova (Yniold)

I was in Vienna this week to do some research, which has been quite time-consuming, hence my tardiness in writing about this performance. I’m now on my way to Munich for Die Gezeichneten (thank you, functional train wifi!).

Going to the Staatsoper remains a funny experience. They’re one of the top tourist attractions in the city and thus benefit from a steady stream of international opera neophytes to support their extremely busy schedule of performances. But they are also—or at least aspire to be—one of the world’s major opera houses. So these tourists innocently turn up to stand through a Reimann opera, or maybe they get a 50-year old production of Elisir d’amore. On one level I think this is delightful and that many people are way more receptive to things often deemed “challenging” than we [opera people] give them credit for. But on the other I also worry that after two acts of a weak Regie Tristan they’re never going to want to set foot in an opera house again. Anyway, Pelléas is not a very standing-friendly opera and I was not in fieldwork mode this time so while there were lots of tourists and some did bail before the end of this sometimes lugubrious performance I cannot tell you what they thought.

Last time I saw Marco Arturo Marelli he was directing Turandot in Bregenz. I think this staging is a lot better, and in fact a lot better than the Staatsoper average. Don’t give the Staats too much credit, though. As they fail to note anywhere in the program, this production was first seen at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and then in Finland. But they chose well, I suppose.

The staging succeeds on the strength of its compelling central image and good performances. The unit set is a dark grotto with a big pool of water in the center. At the very beginning and end of the opera, the back opens to reveal a bright horizon, but for the most part it is a suitably dark and claustrophobic setting. The opera’s One Big Symbol is a little boat associated with Mélisande, which appears in every act and takes on different roles in each: it conceals Yniold’s ball, it is a seat, it’s a sickbed, at one point it’s a ladder for Golaud to spy on his brother, and finally it’s Mélisande’s Lohengrin-like exit plan. I liked this because it is appropriately evocative but still vague, suggesting a voyage or a refuge or any number of meanings. It seems right for this opera. The pool of water is used flexibly as well, with most of the characters wading or otherwise taking a dip. (I couldn’t tell quite how deep it was, but it at least appeared to be enough water to float the boat. That’s quite a lot of water.) It’s dark and dreary and unsentimental and almost post-industrial but doesn’t entirely lose contact with the natural world.

The story proceeds more or less along the lines you would expect. Mélisande is a rare white-dressed bright spot in this world of sickness and decay. An interpolated, silent King character adds a bit of further uncanny atmosphere (his sickness in the first half is nicely mirrored by Pellás’s wake in the second). I’m not sure if there’s a lot to say beyond that. It’s a nice, simple production that evades clichés and uses a few striking, enigmatic images. One of the best is at the very end, when the mysterious serving women appear (as noted in the libretto) only to form a silent host to convey Mélisande beyond the horizon in her boat.

Like in many productions of this opera, the central character seems to be the one who is most human and understandable: Golaud. (And in one of the opera’s few dramatic interpolations, he tries to kill himself at the very end only to be stopped by Yniold.) Simon Keenlyside is a former Pelléas but his voice seems too dark and heavy for that role now, and he brought both intensity to this part. He’s recently gone through a very public vocal crisis but I wouldn’t have known, he sounded more or less like the same bronze lyric baritone he usually does. I do think this kind of role is a better bet for him than the big Verdi stuff he has been singing recently, because he does not need to shout and can give a subtle performance, particularly as Golaud goes through revenge, regret, and despair in the second half of the opera.

French style was not, however, this production’s strong point, and the only Francophone presence was that of Alain Altinoglu in the pit. In keeping with the production and the tendencies of this orchestra, it was a dark and sometimes rather heavy interpretation, with a lot of beautiful textures but not a whole lot of light. The timing tended toward the dramatic and I also sometimes wished for a little more lyricism.

The two title roles were filled by Wiener Staatsoper ensemble members. I have heard good things about soprano Olga Bezsmertna and I was impressed by her Mélisande. She has a gorgeous silvery tone with some interesting complexity to it, but is also able to sing this music with simplicity and transparency. It’s a less wispy Mélisande than some, but still one with the lighter colors of a soprano. Acting-wise, she was a gently mysterious presence. I would like to hear her in something that’s more of a star turn.

As Pellás, ensemble stalwart Adrian Eröd was fine, singing with accuracy and subtlety, but not very interesting—his light baritone is not particularly glamorous or individual and nor did his performance have the charisma it needed. Supporting roles were very strongly cast with Franz-Joseph Selig booming warmly as Arkel and Bernarda Fink making a sympathetic, woefully short appearance as Geneviève. The only fault was Maria Nazarova’s Yniold. While she sang with an effective facsimile of a boy soprano (with more variation of color), she overacted gratingly. I can understand the desire to cast this role with a soprano, but the acting is harder than the singing in this case.

This was my only visit to the Staatsoper this week but I’m glad I got a good one. The season ended last night but Pelléas will return in October.

Photos copyright Michael Plöhn/Wiener Staatsoper

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