Inspiration tainted by excess

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Back in 2000 in this same theatre, Bernard Haitink conducted two concert performances of Pelléasthat achieved legendary status and were later issued on CD. Seven years on, this is his first staged Pelléas and, unbelievably, his first appearance in the pit in Paris. The production was meant to be an apotheosis, the season’s highlight, but, as so often happens, expectations ran away with themselves.

Haitink is not at fault. His sovereign reading combines theatrical effect with ravishing tone paintings, wrapping even the reflective
passages with measured momentum. It is the work of an old master secure in his choices and the Orchestre National de France turns in one of those performances that only great conductors can coax out of them.

But Jean-Louis Martinoty’s vulgar staging is a shabby accompaniment to Haitink’s inspiration. Philippe Sireuil’s remarkable production for Liège last March established muscular characterisation without impairing the inscrutable, ambiguous aspect of this unhappy huis clos. He left you mulling over the issues. Martinoty not only fails to rise to this special occasion but leaves you speechless in the face of melodramatic excess.

He is right to lock into the violence in the piece but massively overplays his hand: Golaud has no need to push the dying Mélisande off her stretcher to prove his inquisitive misery. Some work has been put into gesture, but to what end when the ideas stretch from the laughable – Arkel carrying off Mélisande’s severed pony tail as a trophy – to the grotesque and overtly sexual inverted triangle that forms the window in the tower? Rarely has this subtle, disquieting work been sabotaged with such obvious
pointers.

Hans Schavernoch’s ugly sets match Martinoty’s vulgarity. The carceral château is bang on but the tawdry gauze curtain and its vegetal imprints, the pond that suggests a giant ash tray and the mobile flat-iron platform are aesthetically graceless. The coup de grâce is provided by the David Hamilton seascape backdrop for the last scene.

They could at least have got the wig right. Mélisande’s distinctive long hair is always the tricky detail in any Pelléasstaging but this lop-sided mess is a fright. Magdalena Kozena looks miserable in it but the wig alone cannot excuse her hopeless Mélisande, which misses the mark by miles, another example of misguided celebrity casting. The voice is pretty, and she comes good in the last scene, but too late to wipe out feeble acting that fails to shroud the character in intriguing mystery. Kozena too often plays her as a peevish, petulant spoilt child.

Gregory Reinhart’s Arkel is also miscast, an unconvincing patriarch whose whiskers make him a double of Franz Joseph. And he favours resonant volume over articulation.

Jean-François Lapointe’s helden baritone Pelléas practically owns the global copyright to the role. The production hampers his style but his heroic tone provides both passion and an intriguing overlap with the Wagnerian influences in the score. Laurent Naouri, the only survivor from the concert performance, is going through a rough vocal patch but still rules his space with natural authority, expertly transforming Golaud from cocky hunter into quivering wreck. Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Geneviève is a model of style and petite Amel Brahim Djelloul is simply the best female Yniold I have seen, a
stage natural with a sweet soprano and marvellous diction.

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