Pelléas et Mélisande

Claude Debussy, Libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck
Opéra de Lille co-production with Théâtre de Caen, Les Siècles
Opéra de Lille

Julien Behr and Vannina Santoni Credit: Frédéric Iovino
Alexandre Duhamel and Hadrien Joubert Credit: Frédéric Iovino
Alexandre Duhamel and Vannina Santoni Credit: Frédéric Iovino

Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, 12 years in the writing, a landmark in the annals of opera, premièred in 1902. The libretto is based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play which premièred in 1893.

The action, mysterious, dreamlike, poetic, takes place in medieval times in a dark forest and a cold and gloomy castle. The play and the opera at their premières were given the full Pre-Raphaelite treatment.

There are no arias, no ensembles. There are interludes. “In opera houses, they sing too much,” said Debussy. The text is paramount.

Daniel Jeanneteau’s production, conducted by François-Xavieth Roth and filmed at Opéra de Lille in March this year, belongs to no time, no place. The singers are in modern clothes and mime. The story of forbidden and doomed love is universal.

There is no scenery, only darkness. There are no props. What is not known outweighs what is known. The opera invites the audience to make up their own minds. The music creates the atmosphere.

Golaud (Alexandre Duhamel), lost in the forest, comes upon a mysterious and beautiful woman (Vannina Santoni), weeping by a well. The relationship between him and Mélisande is established immediately. "Don't touch me!" she says. An opera for these COVID times. (Members of the orchestra are wearing masks.)

Golaud takes her home and marries her. Six months later, he still doesn’t know anything about her, except he is convinced she is having an affair with his half-brother, Pelléas (Julien Behr).

The most disturbing scene is when Golaud lifts his son (by his first marriage) on to his shoulders so that he can spy into the bedroom window and see what Mélisande and Pelléas are up to. The longer the opera goes on, the more frightening and brutal Alexandre Duhamel becomes.

Daniel Jeanneteau’s production is strongly recommended. My only disappointment is Mélisande’s hair is not of Rapunzellian length, so crucial for the erotic scene she shares with Pelléas.

Julien Behr, Vannina Santoni and Alexandre Duhamel are excellent. Debussy’s score is a thrilling experience.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

Are you sure?