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October 9, 2012 5:40 pm
There really is a Facebook group called Against Modern Opera Productions. That seems about as logical as Against Electricity or Against Weather. Modern productions exist, and will and must for as long as opera remains part of contemporary life, not something that belongs in a museum.
Presumably supporters of the Facebook group hanker for the floor-length robes and jewel-encrusted chalices of Mad King Ludwig II’s fantasies, and believe these represent every composer’s true intentions. The composers in question are too dead to protest.
Subscribers to the group should beat a path to Essen’s Aalto Theatre for Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s new production of Pelléas et Mélisande. Here the figures in Debussy’s provocatively experimental setting of Maeterlinck’s disturbing text wear plush floor-length velvet (costumes: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer). Critics at the work’s 1902 premiere were shocked by its modernism. There is no danger of that in Essen, where Lehnhoff’s nostalgic aesthetic would reassure even the most reactionary viewer.
Ruth Berghaus, Jossi Wieler, Marco Arturo Marelli – many opera directors in Germany have brought sensational new takes to Debussy’s masterpiece in recent decades. Lehnhoff does not attempt to compete. Within Raimund Bauer’s claustrophobic black box set, Lehnhoff concentrates on the work’s symbolism and on the fine details of the relationships between his characters. This is one of the aspects that saves the evening from utter dreariness; another is Olaf Freese’s elegant lighting. Then there is the mixture of delicacy and rigour with which conductor Stefan Soltesz guides his musical forces.
The cast has strengths and weaknesses. Jacques Imbrailo delights the eye and ear as Pelléas, with the technique, youth and beauty of line to convey both innocence and impetuous passion. Vincent Le Texier makes a deeply satisfying Gouloud, torn and dark; he lives the part. Wolfgang Schöne is a measured Arkel, and Michaela Selinger’s Mélisande is sometimes moving.
The evening’s biggest mistake is the decision to cast a nine-year-old as Yniold. Despite amplification, the child is musically and dramatically utterly out of his depth – presumably the reason why the fourth act’s superb third scene is cut. Debussy had the same problem in 1902, and eventually cast a woman instead. Surely we can learn from history.
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