Malmö might not seem the most obvious place to record Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande but in 2016 the opera there assembled a mostly French cast and two young French rising stars; Maxime Pascal as conductor and Benjamin Lazar as director. The result is interesting, rather good and very French.
The “concept” is straightforward and, I think, close to Maeterlink and Debussy’s. We are in a “forest of the imagination” somewhere between reality and dream or fairy tale. The people who inhabit this forest are also human like but also something more, or perhaps less. A lot of things don’t happen literally. A good example would be the “tower scene”. There’s no tower. Rather Mélisande is on a swing suspended from a branch. So the words of the libretto don’t make literal sense but it has the same feel as a dream of being real and unreal at the same time. It seems too that the forest is very dark and at any one time only small parts of the very large Malmö stage are lit. This is isn’t as obvious on the video as it must have been in the house. There’s also that modern cliché, a silent chorus. This time of women.
The characterisations are interesting. Jenny Daviet, as Mélisande, seems almost doll like; certainly at times child like. She’s made up very pale with big blue eyes. Her body language varies from slightly manic through awkward to very still indeed. Every gesture is thought provoking. She’s also a lovely singer with a very “white” tone which matches her physical appearance. Pelléas is played by zwischenfach baritenor Marc Mauillon. He’s convincingly youthful and, again, seems not quite of this world. Also a very impressive singer.
Laurent Alvaro has the unenviable task of interpreting Golaud. I must confess that I find Golaud essentially unconvincing as a character. His mood swings, based on little or nothing, seem contrived yet he doesn’t seem to be mercurial in any other way. Rather dull in fact. Maybe he just has to be that way for the drama to play out. Dreams, after all, don’t have to be logical. In any event Alvaro plays it straight. Another fine singer too. Stephen Bronk is very dignified and solid as Arkell and exudes a kind of more than human stillness. The other roles are all fine too. All in all it works pretty well in a traditionally delicate, even slightly washed out, way which I guess is apt.
The video direction of Corentin Leconte isn’t so great. It must be very tempting to follow the light in this production and he does that probably to excess but I think we need to see more of the darkness than we do. It gets pretty extreme in Act 4 where relentless close ups undermine the tension of the lurking Golaud and take all the mystery out of the scene. Oddly, Act 5 is given a much less intrusive treatment and it works much better. There’s no technical excuse either as this was filmed in full HD and the picture, on Blu-ray at least, can cope with detail even in the dark spaces.
Pascal’s conducting focusses on detail and he achieves great clarity. The Malmö orchestra plays really well for him and it’s all rendered really well in DTS-HD MA surround sound on the Blu-ray release. The stereo mix is decent too but can’t match the surround for detail.
There are no extras on the disk but the booklet has a useful essay by the director as well as a synopsis and track listing. Subtitle options are English (sometimes a very literal translation!), French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.
There are now several good video recordings of Pelléas et Mélisande in the catalogue and this bears comparison with them. The competitors on Blu-ray are Bechtolf’s high concept Zürich production and Lehnhof’s Essen production which uses a baritone and a mezzo in the title roles. I haven’t seen it but it sounds intriguing.