Pelléas and Mélisande

Claude Debussy
Grand Théâtre de Genève
Grand Théâtre de Genève

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The Cast of Pelléas and Mélisande Credit: Magali Dougados
The Cast of Pelléas and Mélisande Credit: Magali Dougados
The Cast of Pelléas and Mélisande Credit: Magali Dougados

Claude Debussy’s one and only opera premièred in 1902 and is an adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play which had premièred nine years earlier.

For many, the story of Pelléas and Mélisande will conjure up images of young romantic medieval lovers as seen through the eyes of the Pre-Raphaelites, but there is nothing medieval nor Pre-Raphaelite about this production which dispenses with any illustration.

At the Grand Theatre in Geneva, the opera is staged as an impressionistic cosmic dream in some far-off misty galaxy. There’s no forest, no castle, no tower, no cave, no vault and the heroine does not have lovely long hair. Instead, the production concentrates on the hidden emotions of the characters expressed through six quasi-naked male dancers and phallic obelisks.

Damien Jalet and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui both direct and choreograph. Marina Abramovic is responsible for the set and concept. The conductor is Jonathan Nott. The production was to have opened to the public in January, but COVID put a stop to that and it is now being streamed.

Prince Golaud (Lieigh Melrose) desperately wants to know if Pelleas (Jacques Imbrailo), his half-brother, is having sex with Melisande (Man Enksmoen), the beautiful mysterious girl he found all alone weeping in the forest and married. The opera is Golaud’s erotic dream.

The lovers are costumed in SF galaxy clothes and do not look like real people. Melisande in particular is a mysterious presence who never comes to life. It is difficult to become emotionally involved with this singularly unromantic-looking trio; at least not until the very end. The person who makes the most impression is the elderly king sung by Matthew Best.

The singers are constantly upstaged by the dancers, an orgy of naked bodies with bulging masculinity. They look like live marble statues come to life. They crawl and roll all over the stage and on top of each other. They wrap themselves round the singers, tying them up in cat cradles.

The production is visually stunning and it is the dancers, not the singers, who give it its erotic charge.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch