Q Review: “Pelleas et Melisande” at Covent Garden

June 23rd, 2007 · < Q >

Pelléas et Mélisande

an opera in five acts

Music by Claude Debussy
Libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck

Royal Opera House at Covent Garden
Performance of 21 May 2007

Conductor: Simon Rattle
Director: Stanislas Nordey
Set Designer: Emmanuel Clolus
Costume Designer: Raoul Fernandez
Lighting: Philippe Berthomé

A co-production with the Salzburg Easter Festival

Mélisande: Angelika Kirchschlager
Golaud: Gerald Finley
Arkel: Robert Lloyd
Pelléas: Simon Keenlyside

an account by KEN QUANDT

The song that Mélisande sang just before she let down her hair in Act Three of Pelléas et Mélisande does not appear in the play, nor therefore in the libretto of Debussy’s opera, which imports the words of the play directly, the only differences being some omissions. We find the song elsewhere, prefaced to a collection of meditative aphorisms Maeterlinck called La Chanson de Mélisande, which appears in a miscellany of his writings that received the title La Grande Porte from the editors of Bibliothèque-Charpentier:

L’eau qui pleure et l’eau qui rit,
L’eau qui parle et l’eau qui fuit,
L’eau qui tremble dans la nuit …

L’anneau glisse et l’anneau luit,
L’anneau trouble l’eau qui fuit,
L’anneau tombe dans la nuit …

L’anneau tombe et la couronne,
–Que les anges nous pardonnent!
La couronne tombe aussi
Dans l’eau froide et dans la nuit …

The water that cries and then laughs so bright,
The water that speaks and the water in flight,
The water that trembles throughout the night …

The ring slips and the ring so bright,
The ring troubles the water in flight,
The ring tumbles throughout the night …

The ring does tumble and so does the crown,
–Pardon us angels! Please not to frown!
The crown, too, tumbles in its right
Through water so cold throughout the night …

The water is either the shallow pond she is perched beside when Golaud finds her at the beginning of Act One, or the bottomless well she visits with Pelléas in Act Two. In the former she has lost her crown (the couronne) before the play begins and does not want Golaud to retrieve it though he can see it there; in the latter she loses the wedding ring Golaud had given her in the meanwhile (the anneau), recklessly tossing it in the air as she lies on the well’s marble edge. All this gold under water makes her a Rhinemaiden out of water. It is as if she feels her rings and crowns would do better down there.

The poem, and in particular its line near the end asking the angels’ forgiveness, provide Maeterlinck his occasion to reflect on one of his favorite themes, the vanity and indestructibility of human consciousness. The Unknown may well have its emissaries, he tells us, but it is just as likely that the angels we ask to forgive us are just extensions of ourselves, no better than our own best thoughts. We are much more and much less than we think we are, and what we do or have done has much less to do with who we are than we can imagine. Our confusion about the boundaries of identity reaches into our attitude toward death, which is nothing if we are something since everything is eternal. Hope and fear we feel with equal lack of warrant: why do we worry more about what will happen right after we die instead of right after we are born? Though both are vain, our hopes vanish more easily than our fears, and this gives life its special climate. Most paradoxically, “From the moment one ceases to have a body, if he is still something then the something he is is no longer the ‘myself’ he had thought was everything. You will not recover your identity; you will become that which surrounds you; and you will be everything instead of you.”

This is the worldview that underlies his poetical Symbolism, which is not a matter of replacing things with symbols but of giving invisible feelings and intimations of the invisible an objective presence in things. His method calls on us to grasp the feelings directly from the things. The water for instance is an oblivion and death that we can peer into: perhaps when we can see the bottom it is the death that is this life and perhaps when the bottom is beyond seeing the water is the death beyond this life.

Hands mean everything in the way humans relate to each other. Golaud asks for Mélisande’s hand to guide her our of the forest; she will not be touched but follows him; and next we learn she has given him her hand in marriage. Pelléas wants to take her by the hand along a narrow dark path she does not know but at the moment her hands are already full of flowers. Golaud leads Pelléas on a path into the grotto beneath the castle and wants to take him by the hand to help him along, but decides it would be more secure if he grabbed him by the arm.

Blinking is something Golaud notices Mélisande does not do when he first sees her. She tells him she only closes her eyes at night. When his son spies on Mélisande and Pelléas all he can report is that they are not blinking. When at the very end Golaud confesses he has never known the soul of Mélisande it is despite the fact he has been so close to her he has felt the air wafted by her eyelashes.

Mélisande’s hair becomes the climactic symbol in this story when at the beginning of Act Three she lets it down outside her bedroom window and Pelléas loses himself in it beneath and even ties it to a lime tree before Golaud shows up and blows the whistle on them. Her hair is very long — longer than herself she tells Pelléas at the well. It comes from where her thoughts come from and all those thoughts are still with her. As Maeterlinck says in the Chanson, “Tous ce que nous avons vu, tous ce que nous avons connu, sera toujours autour de nous” (“Everything we have ever seen, everything we have ever known, will forever surround us”). This makes Mélisande his metaphysical hero though she cannot know it since conscious knowing cancels this kind of heroism. She cries instead of knowing, and so does Pelléas — and so will her babyas we learn at the final moment of the piece.

Golaud cannot cry but he can cry out, especially in anger. For him les tenèbres are inconvenient obscurité. In his version of the scene beneath the bedroom window from which Melisande had extended herself down to Pelléas with her hair, he extends himself upward by forcing his little son to climb up on his shoulders and spy on his stepmother Mélisande through the window. At the beginning Golaud comes upon Mélisande in the forest, and thinks her lost though she wants to stay. He wants to take her somewhere but does not know where because as he admits in the final line of the scene he is lost, too. He got lost hunting a wild boar that evaded him. He is lost because he thinks the needs to be somewhere else. In the Second Act he is hunting again, while Mélisande is beside water again, this time restfully and with Pelléas beside the unfathomable water of the well. The moment she loses the ring — high noon — Golaud on the hunt is thrown when his horse unaccountably shies at something. She returns to the castle to find him laid up and notices a blood spot on his pillow. This is what Golaud has for hair. She is tender and solicitous and gives him her hands, but when he takes them into his he only notices the ring is gone, and he goes into a rage. He (not she) must have that ring back. Maeterlinck quotes Bossuet in the Chanson: “Il faut savoir adorer dans les caprices de la predestination les secrets de la sagesse éternelle” (“One must learn to treasure the ways capricious predestination reveals the secrets of eternal wisdom”). This is what Golaud cannot do and cannot treasure doing either.

The Weltanschauung of a boundless soul that is empty in itself but full because fully absorbed in the world around, strikes a note initially foreign in our resolutely egoistical culture of the Twenty-First Century and makes us think we are hearkening back to something. The commentators remind us of the delicate and fleeting era of the Pre-Raphaelites and find it precious and beautiful (and Kristeva tedious, of course). Maeterlinck’s passion led him to study the life of bees and of termites, and it is not impossible for us to find something of his outlook in our way of seeing things these days if only we look through the other end of the telescope. The hypo-egoism he explores by comparing human society to a society of bees corresponds to the hyper-egoism we tend toward, according to which the environment could be destroyed by nothing more than our ignorant selves. The lurking contradiction in the way we find our unimportance so important makes the story Maeterlinck tells uncomfortable in a newer way than when it premiered in 1893 (the opera in 1902) — new, but not that different.


We may have been ripe for an environmentalist mise en scène for this opera, but Stanislas Nordey has done something else altogether, in the version that premiered last Easter in Salzburg (2006), and that is currently finishing a run at Covent Garden. I know Nordey’s work from the fantastic St-François d’Assise he put on at the Bastille in 2004. There as here he created a narrative by means of vertical backdrops behind the characters parallel to the action that keep track of where the story has been and how far it has gotten. And again he goes so far as to perch his characters up in the vertical backdrop ten feet above the stage. The reviewers of the Covent Garden run fixed on the term “hieratic” — a shibboleth to hide their confusion — but his method is a perfect match for the Symbolist method of Maeterlinck. The temporal magic of Debussy’s kind of music was already the perfect match for the Symbolist method of depicting mood and presence trumping projection, statement, and intentionality. The static magic of Nordey’s visuals does the same thing in the complementary dimension of visual space.

His work in this opera deserves to be described in any amount of detail a reader can tolerate and a writer can pull off describing. It is beyond me to do it it justice. I learned from his mise en scène what the opera truly means, that it is the story of the pure and virtuous soul being mistaken and then abused by a person and by a society that is drawn to it exactly by its virtue and beauty which can only affect them by making them conscious of their own pettiness. It is not a love story: Pelléas’s love is only the exception that proves the rule.


As the black curtain rises we see five large and obscure black columns with transverse streaks of grey on a darkened stage. They are the trees of the forest where Golaud finds Mélisande. She is far downstage right in a fire-red, skintight dress. Golaud enters from among the trees in a white suit with puffy shoulders and puffy pantaloons and sparkling sequins, a showy suit that he wears unselfconsciously as if this is what one wears. There is no pond for her to be falling into. Kirchschlager’s dress and her deeply intoned “Ne me touchez pas” indicate immediately she is much more than the fragile dryad that most productions, and Maeterlinck, too, make her out to be.

At the end of the scene the darkling trees slowly begin to rotate, revealing themselves to be some sort of thick panels we have been seeing on end. One in particular moves to the center of the stage. When it comes to a stop we are faced with a huge rectangle about twenty feet high and twice as wide with obscure transverse streaks of grey on a dark stage. Quietly and suddenly its front reveals itself to be two doors as they open outward toward us. Within is a lightbox, and as the doors fold all the way back we have before us a triptych that virtually fills the stage. The panels are illuminated and light silver grey, and scored with spare lines as if things could be attached and located on them. The center panel is a square flanked by narrower side panels about half as wide as tall. The stage is lighted by the box rather than the other way around. Geneviève reads Golaud’s letter to Arkel and Pelléas comes onto the stage. All three — a woman and two men — are wearing clothes in the same style as Golaud. This is, indeed, what one wears, man or woman. At the end of the scene the doors close, the characters disappear behind it, and the stage darkens. Stagehands barely visible in black rotate the huge box three times and stop. It opens and re-illumines the stage in front of it, and this time there are simple square objects located seven by seven on the center panel and three by seven on the sides. They create only a pattern, they are not things. This is the scene when Mélisande is brought to the castle and meets Pelléas on the way. In her hands she carries large and ungainly white bouquets (she must have gotten from the silver-dressed Geneviève).

The box closes and rotates three times; when it opens to begin the scene with Pelléas and Mélisande at the well its insides have become a marquee covered with the words PELLEASMELISANDE written over and over. Illuminated bulbs form the letters on a silver ground, or else a silver ground is perforated and illuminated from the rear. Pelléas and Mélisande joyfully run onto the stage. As the scene and their happy conversation warms up, a single PELLEAS in the upper right and a single MELISANDE in the lower left of the central panel glow brighter and brighter. Somehow Nordey has gotten these simple elements to convey irrepressible joy. The box illuminates the stage which is otherwise empty with a slate colored floor, and this time Mélisande does have a way to fall into the water since she is lying supine on the very front of the stage above the orchestra. Before this all the movements had been stiff, but now the characters are happy, and relaxed. Keelyside’s Pelléas in that suit is goofy-graceful and attractive.

The same moment she loses her ring in the well Golaud will have fallen off his horse. The box closes and rotates to take us there. When it opens we see it is hung with a symmetric array of bedpillows each having a bloodstain in the lower left corner, 3 by 7, 7 by 7, and 3 by 7. Red has made it into the box and so has an element from the story. Golaud tells Mélisande he is all right but she notices the stain on the pillow, a touch of reality in a world he thinks he controls with his will. Mélisande is the other red thing in this silver chrome world. Apart from the scene with Pelléas and Mélisande the characters stand far from each other and facing perpendicular (this kind of blocking is not hieratic but has become a cliché). Golaud is front and center facing the audience and exposes his personality to us and Mélisande watches uninvolved, upstage. For first time Golaud touches Mélisande but only to discover she has lost her ring. He sends her to retrieve it immediately — we are given to believe it belonged to his previous wife, who died. Quickly we ascertain the unstated fact that he is reusing it on Mélisande. He cares so much about it he does not care if she goes with Pelléas to find it. It is not only his rage that makes him careless. He is visibly blind to the play of destiny and ignores its suggestions of a truth beneath the surface.

The box closes, rotates, and opens to reveal the three spectral beggars in the grotto, in a sort of bas relief on the three panels, as if they were sculpted in stone like Michelangelo’s emerging slaves. They are repulsive as they are supposed to be, but at the same time they are marvelous. When we are under the sway of Golaud in the contrasting scene when he takes Pelléas down into the castle dungeon, the mood will be quite different.

Once Pelléas and Mélisande have done their penance in the grotto, Act Two comes to a close and we are ready for Act Three to begin with the Tower Scene where she lets down her hair. The Acts are through-composed, with musical interludes between the scenes. During these interludes the box has closed and rotated and opened to the music of the interlude. When the music comes to a stop at the end of an Act, the curtain lowers as the music dissolves into silence.

Wonderfully, we applauded but the house lights did not go up after Act One, nor at the end of Act Two. One does not tend to pop out of his seat when this kind of music stops. I attended a performance at the Met one lazy Thursday night a couple years ago that was done with two intermissions. As the lights came up the first time we slowly got up and went out to walk around but did not know why; and at the second intermission it seemed nobody in the Grand Tier even moved. I had never noticed how intimate a place is the Grand Tier at the Met. I was grateful there had not yet been an intermission tonight in Covent Garden and even began to hope they would let the magic last through to the end.

When the curtain rises to start Act Three the box opens to give us a triptych stunning and gorgeous. Not only has the red gotten onto the panels: now they are hung with an array of Mélisande’s red dresses, 3 by 3, 7 by 3, and 3 by 3. The one in the center of the center panel has Mélisande in it. If opera goers and their critics did not shop so much or act as if they did the critics might have left out remarks about store windows or fashion displays. If they had seen Nordey’s version of the Messiaen St-François at the Bastille, they would not have been embarrassed into speechlessness by the location of Mélisande, who of course does belong in the center and is the center the opera. At the Bastille Francis spent three of the seven scenes elevated to the center of the stage — hours in all — on a perch, then on a platform, and finally on a virtual cross.

Kirchschlager’s voice is already strong and throaty. Place her up in the middle of the stage with a solid backdrop right behind her and you have a sound oracular and prophetic. She, and the red we cannot help but stare at, have taken over. Beneath her and in front of the box, on the floor of the stage, Pelléas calls to her and begs to see her hair. The scene is almost worshipful but somehow she is not on a pedestal after all. It is love that Pelléas feels, rather than adoration. There is no much-awaited trick of long hair dangling down for Pelléas to grab. Instead the vertical world of the box is kept apart from the horizontal world of the stage. Pelléas lying on the floor comes to be surrounded by a pool of shimmering light projected onto the floor of the stage that represents his becoming tangled in her hair. At the ecstatic moment where the music turns inside out and unfurls its greatest beauties as if it were glowing from within like all of these boxes of Nordey’s, the frame of the triptych begins to glow in a deep aqua-blue color, the color and the luminous effect of the waters at Havasupai, exactly. The panels holding the dresses become a bit darker and the dresses verge toward crimson except for Mélisande in the center who has a spotlight. It is the most beautiful thing I ever saw. I will travel across the world to see how Nordey will again make time stop during the night song in Tristan und Isolde, Act Two.

The box closes and rotates away: another box approaches from the rear and it has, yes, a sentence on it in large letters: “Sentez vous l’odeur de mort qui monte?” The line is taken from the libretto of the coming scene when Golaud as if to punish or warn his half-brother Pelléas takes him into the castle’s subterranean dungeons that smell of death. The box comes to a stand facing us and lights up from within rather than opening. The words become visible in black and Golaud and Pelléas come onstage in front of it so as to appear in silhouette.

Nordey placed words onto his tableaux in the St-François, too. The effect both there and here is to freeze a passing line in the script because its significance is not merely passing. There, the questions with which the angel stuns the vicar appeared in writing on the backdrop. The line written here makes us ask, does Golaud need to take us this far? Have we indeed come so far? When Pelléas can stand the darkness and stench no more they leave outward, becoming invisible as they pass outside the front of the box and go behind it. The box rotates and the same words are on the other side, but now it is very bright. In fact the entire hall is lit by the brightness of the box. Pelléas runs joyfully around from the back relieved from getting out of the dank and drear. There has been no magic as Golaud guided Pelléas into the bowels of the castle, as there had been with the spectral figures emerging from stone when Pelléas guided Mélisande down to the grotto.

This box darkens and moves away and another approaches, and this time it does not open. On the stage in front of it a square almost its size appears in light. We are ready for the spying scene with Golaud’s son Yniold. Golaud’s sparring and cajolery takes place in an arena or a ring defined by the lighted area. When it is time to raise Yniold up to spy on what Mélisande is doing, the box does open but this time the doors open by sliding up and down from the center and disappear rather than rotating open to form a triptych. The box is bright white and empty except that Mélisande and Pelléas are sitting, elevated into the center of the box in plain chairs and facing each other. They are “doing” nothing and keep doing nothing, while Golaud and Yniold struggle into a sit-on-my-shoulders pose at the front edge of the stage. It is in this scene, after the elevation of Mélisande, that Finley’s Golaud really starts emitting animal grunts. When Yniold demonstrates their kiss on Golaud he turns to the audience to complain about his father’s gruffness and his beard; and when he is promised a new bow and arrow he plays shooting it at Golaud from many angles. The audience is endeared to the performer of Yniold by all this, and will as usual give loud applause to the child role, but its relevance comes in later when we are asked to contemplate whether the next generation will be any different.

It is the end of Act Three and the curtain lowers. Finally the lights come up and we have a breather. What will we see in the final act? The presence of the box throughout the first three acts and the modified uses it is given these last two scenes of Act Three leave us uncertain. But the consistency and the development in its use, defining a separate space that beings to accept a stain of red and then accepts Mélisande into it and then Pelléas, gives us the premonition of something revelatory. Nordey’s genius is to create a scenery language fantastically beautiful, disarmingly economical, transparently logical, and stunningly exact in meaning though completely mute. The silent commentary gives his audience an intimate feeling of involvement in the meaning and its interpretation all along, if only the audience allows itself to get the message and not be scandalized, especially by the use of the vertical dimension and the supergraphic written words. With the last two Acts things will become clearer and clearer until at the end they become unbearably clear and the performance is over.

The curtain for Act Four rises to reveal a huge glowing red panel with a violent black gash running across it, transverse like the angle of the streaks we had seen on the trees in the first scene of Act One, and on the face of the box in Act Three. The huge panel almost fills the stage except that visible beyond its edges, side and top, there is another red panel behind, and one, two, three more. Within this act Mélisande will be adored by the grandfather King Arkel, abused horribly by her husband Golaud, and made love to by the departing Pelléas before he is murdered by Golaud. Then she will be brought her baby as she dies by a kind of gradual diffusing of her self. Red has been her color all along, and all along the only color on the stage. Now we have the denouement of everything her redness has wrought. The light box is gone. It is almost as if Mélisande has come to Jerusalem to do her final dying. Each scene in the sequence a red panel rises away revealing the next person behind. When it is Mélisande that enters, in the well scene with Pelléas, there she is in red against the next red background — I thought of Isolde’s arrival in the Viola video of the Tristan Project. While Pelléas is confessing his love for her and she for him we notice there is only one more panel to raise, and we know who will be behind it — a good example of how Nordey’s economy, consistency and simple logic help us along.

After the murder of Pelléas, Mélisande is left alone, as if neglected even by the director, exhausted and distraught. She wanders downstage for the length of the interlude. Then the lights raise to reveal the final scene.

In the final scene of Messiaen’s St-François, all that is left is for Francis to die. For that scene Nordey brought everyone onto the stage. Behind them he placed all the backgrounds that had been used in the previous scenes. In a way he confesses that the gimmickry with the scenery has served its purpose, and now the story end will since Francis is to die. He’s done a similar thing here, using his scenery to tell the story and mark its stages, and he finishes up with a similar death scene. The red panel is gone. Behind the characters who have collected to blab their way through Mélisande’s slow dissolution with their vain and futile remarks, Nordey places almost two dozen of these same silver white sequined suits they are all dressed in, and the suits are standing empty. The red dresses hanging in the triptych during the Tower scene foreshadow them somewhat, but they are immediately self-explanatory and need no foreshadowing. After the abuse of Mélisande these twenty empty suits help us to understand why after all these people wear such stupid looking clothes and think nothing of it. They are clueless. As an outsider by birth and no blood relation to King Arkel, Pelléas is the exception that proves the rule. At the other extreme, Golaud complains in self-pity that he never knew Mélisande even though he was close enough to her to feel the air wafted by her eyelashes, but the pain of his shallowness only makes him more angry.

For her part, all that is left for Mélisande is to die. Her vivid and loving redness has had its effect on them and they will continue to be the nothings they think is everything while she will be freed to become the everything she always was. Her death is not tragic and not an act of martyrdom. Rather, personal life is less significant than we make it seem. As Maeterlinck says in a telling remark on the insignificance of the self near the end of his Chanson de Mélisande, “Le pouvoir de l’âme sur le corps a ses limites, et afin qui l’on commande en effet, il faut toujours supposé que le corps soit en bon état:” Mélisande’s natural weakness is enough reason for her to die.

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