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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Pelleas et Melisande at Aix-en-Provence

    Pelléas et Mélisande, drame lyrique en cinq actes et 12 tableaux, sung in French
    Music by Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
    Libretto adapted by the composer from Maurice Maeterlinck's play of the same name (1892)
    Premiered on April 30, 1902 at L'Opéra Comique, Paris, France

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    The title of this article doesn't have the diacritic marks on the fourth E in Pelléas and the second one in Mélisande, to facilitate the URL link.

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    A new production of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, in co-production with Teater Wielki - Opera Narodowa / Polish National Opera, Beijing Music Festival

    Subtitled in French and English - Grand Théâtre de Provence, July 2, 4, 7, 13, and 17, 2016, at 7:30 PM - this review is of the second performance on July 4th.

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    Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Cape Town Opera Chorus, chorus master Marvin Kernelle
    Stage Direction by Katie Mitchell
    Sets by Lizzie Clachan
    Costumes by Chloe Lamford
    Lighting by James Farncombe
    Blocking by Joseph W. Alford
    Dramaturg Martin Crimp

    Cast

    Pelléas - Opera Lively interviewee Stéphane Degout (pending)
    Mélisande - Opera Lively interviewee Barbara Hannigan (past, and a second one pending)
    Golaud - Opera Lively interviewee Laurent Naouri (pending)
    Arkel - Franz-Josef Selig
    Geneviève - Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
    Yniold - Chloé Briot
    Le Médecin - Thomas Dear

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    This review starts Opera Lively's official coverage of the 68th Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. Stay tuned for interviews with singers Stéphane Degout, Laurent Naouri, Kate Lindsey, Sandrine Piau, conductor Emmanuelle Haïm, Festival Director Bernard Foccroulle, and reviews of Così fan Tutte and Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. As these become available we will edit this article to link to them.

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    Pélleas et Mélisande possesses a score of great simplicity and economy of means, yet it achieves a very powerful impact, with ethereal and hypnotic beauty. One of its assets is the literary quality of its libretto, adapted almost word by word from Maeterlink's play that belongs to the Symbolism school. It is very well represented in videography and discography, and has a well-defined place in the standard repertory. Still, its popularity is not the highest, given its structure in a long, continuous recitative, accompanied by an orchestra that is subdued and soft for the most part. Those who blame it for these supposed shortcomings - and they were numerous since its premiere - might be failing to recognize its status as an astounding masterpiece, both musically and theatrically. It is quite unique and original still to this date, and any opportunity to see it live is not to be missed, especially when such an extraordinary production like this one in Aix comes along.

    Back to my hotel from the performance, I am still troubled and moved by what I've just seen on stage. It qualifies as one of the best shows I've ever seen - it is one of those rare productions where all pieces click together in a rather perfect manner.

    The three main aspects of an operatic performance - Orchestra/Conductor, Singing, and Stage Direction - couldn't be any better. Let's address it in our usual manner, element by element, with our habitual scoring method.

    Orchestra/Conductor - This was a thing of beauty. From my vantage point - 5th row center - I was merely yards away from Esa-Pekka Salonen and could follow his every gesture and its effect on the instrumentalists. Elegance and absolute control are words that come to mind. Boulez famously conducted this opera very loudly, contrary to what Debussy had recommended. Some play it too softly. I believe that Mr. Salonen had a happy medium in his dynamics, keeping his musicians subdued in the quiet parts, and unleashing them with great verve in the raw and tense moments. Like the maestro said, another essential aspect for a good P&M is the issue of tempi. Given the declamatory nature of the vocal writing, the conductor needs to be very flexible in allowing the singers to recite at a comfortable rhythm, but without missing the larger form, and without overlooking the small events. Especially in the fifth act, there aren't many notes to play, so the orchestra needs to make the best of the ones that are there. Tonight, I believe that maestro Salonen taught a huge masterclass on how to conduct P&M. The orchestra didn't miss a beat or a note, even to my demanding ears since this is one of my favorite operas, and one that I know well. Perfect! A++ for both the conductor and the orchestra.

    Singing - We were treated to a luxury cast. It doesn't get much better than this. All four roles with substantial music (the title roles + Golaud and Arkel) were manned by some of the best singers in activity, with their artistry polished by long experience singing these characters in the case of the men, and while I'm not so sure about Barbara Hannigan's previous attempts at singing Mélisande (this one might be her role debut), well, Barbara is Barbara. There isn't a role in her repertoire that she doesn't sing extremely well.

    It is hard to compare which singer did best, and at this level of quality, it isn't important - but it's always a temptation to select one's favorite. I'd oscillate during the performance in being in awe with every one of them - here in this stretch I was thinking "Laurent Naouri is such an extraordinary Golaud - he gets my internal prize of best singer of the night - such power, such incredible dramatic infusion in his voice!" But then, shortly thereafter there in that other part I'd be amazed at Stéphane Degout and would be thinking "No, he's the best one, look at this passion and emotion!" Of course, it would be enough for Barbara to open her mouth to sing and I'd rapidly switch to her as my favorite, given her beautiful timbre and precision, and her phenomenal range. As Act Five came along in which Arkel sings a lot, I thought "Well, Franz-Josef Selig is every bit as good as his three colleagues." Truly, it's not everyday that I'll grant A++ to each and every principal singer. All four deserved it. The comprimarios were all very good, with special mention to Chloé Briot who presented a well-sung Yniold.

    Acting - Now, there is a bit of a difference. While the singers doing the three comprimario roles were correct, they weren't as incredible as Barbara, Laurent, and Stéphane. It is harder to judge Franz-Josef in this because it is very possible that Ms. Mitchell wanted him to be very stiff and restrained. On the other hand, the three above-mentioned were out of this world. Stéphane was a nervous and fragile Pélleas. Laurent was a very tormented and suffering Golaud (less explosive and temperamental than I've seen in other productions, with more emphasis on his conflicted side). Barbara Hannigan, we know her. She is one of the best actresses in the business. While I was already deeply in love with her Agnès (Written on Skin) and her Lulu, it is very possible that her Mélisande will become my favorite performance of the one's I've seen with her. As I'll mention soon regarding the staging, this Mélisande was extremely sensual - not the innocent kind. She was also less cold and distant, and more involved in the volcano of feelings that she triggers in the men (including Arkel). Acting gets A++ for these three principals, A for the other singers, and A- for Chloé Briot who seemed a bit less good than her counterparts (she sung better than she acted - as a young artist, surely she will later develop more this aspect of her trade). Overall, A+. In this production there were three actresses added to the mix, in silent roles (Sarah Northgraves, Sacha Plaige, and Mia Theil Have) who all did well.

    Blocking - one of the greatest strengths of this show. While there was a creative team member in charge of this (Joseph Alford), it is signature Katie Mitchell, with her habitual use of slow motion and frozen scenes. This is particularly well adapted to Pélleas et Mélisande, with its tense and thoughtful moments, and worked well with her main concept (see below). Some of the movements were genial, like the way two servants were dressing and undressing Mélisande, who assumed a posture of doll being tossed right and left, with some awkward and acrobatic body positions. A++

    Lighting - one of the few elements I wasn't in love with. There was a lot of it. P&M is, well, a dark piece. This wasn't very dark... including a pervasive very bright window with sunlight on the right side of the stage, while the libretto mentions several times that the castle is dark and the forest around it doesn't allow Mélisande to see the sun. Certainly it must have been done in agreement with the stage director, and I wonder what she was trying to accomplish with that: maybe to convey that people were in denial of the reality around them? Possibly. But in any case, this seemed to be too bright a lighting for a piece like P&M. I'll give it a B+.

    Stage Direction and Sets - Incredibly good. Wow! I've seen my share of P&Ms and I believe that this staging was the one that did the best job in conveying the psychological drama in this piece.

    Sets, first: Katie Mitchell had her signature divided stage with lower, upper, and side boxes. Stairs are also favorites for her, and we did have a spiral one on the left side. Threes and lakes intruded into a regular, modern-looking house, including with the use of water, and the Fountain of the Blind scenes were aptly done in a derelict swimming pool, to great effect. A++

    Staging concept: Together with the fabulous musical side (orchestra/conductor/singers), this is another element that made of this P&M the best I've ever seen. Mitchell added a clever twist to the action: she had Mélisande pervasively present as an observer, like a ghost remembering her time among the living in a sort of out-of-the-body experience, or someone watching her own dream (the staging opens and closes with Mélisande asleep on a bed, so that she seems to dream of the entire story). Well, the "it was just a dream" trope is often unsuccessful... but not here, especially given the dream-like character of this very symbolic play. It works. Mélisande has a double (a silent actress) so she looks at herself in various moments of the opera. To reinforce this idea, other characters, although they don't have doubles, do appear silently in various scenes of which they are normally not a part. The multiplication of layers with added psychological impact is very noticeable, significantly enhancing and enriching the depth conveyed by the piece.

    Now, Mitchell did alter a little bit the symbolic arc in the opera, something that I usually don't like in stagings. While I don't mind updates and concept-laden direction when there is respect for the music, I often balk at altered overall arc. In this case, one of the main characteristics of P&M's dilemma is Golaud's quest for knowing whether or not his wife engaged in actual sexual relations with his half-brother, as opposed to a platonic, more innocent relationship. She dies before he can know about it, to his great despair (well, she does tell him that no, it wasn't a "forbidden love" - but there is ambiguity in what she means by that, given that she is depicted by Maeterlink as someone whose natural innocence might be such that she does not find that her love for Pelléas was improper in any way). In this staging there is no ambiguity whatsoever, with the two lovers shown engaging in sex during the scene right before Pelléas is killed, not to forget an earlier scene in which they get together in bed, entirely naked. Still, I didn't really mind Ms. Mitchell's take on this, because there is always the aspect of denial: Golaud can't come to terms with what he saw, even though in this staging it was quite explicit. Besides, in her concept it's Mélisande's dream, and we know that dreamers often will dream of what they wish had happened, rather than what really did, so it is not excluded that Mélisande wished she had made love to Pelléas, but in her awake state she never did - a point Laurent Naouri emphasized in his interview with us (done, pending transcription). Another symbolic point that Laurent brought up was the very Lacanian word bridges employed in this staging: for example, when Mélisande names various saints, she is breastfeeding her daughter - the words for breast and saint in French sound the same.

    Other elements of the staging expressed perfectly the bleak and desperate feelings in the text, with a very moving dying scene for Mélisande. Pregnancy and the baby daughter appear earlier in the staging and get introduced multiple times (either Mélisande or her doppelganger appear alternatively pregnant and not pregnant, and the baby gets carried around in various scenes), which I also found clever, in terms of the a-temporal nature of dreams (a concept Sigmund Freud had introduced in the same turn of century in which this opera was created). I particularly liked the symbolism of the broken windows with trees intruding into the home; the choreographed slow movements in the staircase; and the rather terrifying swimming pool scenes. Mitchell introduced blindfolds at some points, and changed the three sleeping old men in the cave scene to Arkel, Geneviève, and Golaud as blindfolded sleepwalkers (again, trying to deny and ignore all the dysfunction found in their kingdom).

    Regarding sexuality, Mélisande was overtly sexual even with Arkel. I've seen her more passively receiving the men's advances than in this staging where she often disrobes and kisses the men on the mouth. She seems to subvert the entire household like one would see in a Pasolini movie. Still, there are moments where she is tossed around like a sex doll, cold and passive - there is also a very explicit rape scene, made more troubling by the fact that Yniold is present and terrified, getting under a table, holding on nervously to his golden ball, as a way to avoid seeing what his father is doing to his step-mother. So, it's a complex Mélisande, conveying well the notion that humans are indeed very complicated beings when sex is concerned.

    In summary, this staging also scores an A++, and I found it quite impressive and memorable. I'm not alone: it was a long, long, enthusiastic ovation at the end (a neat detail is that all the stagehands were also invited for the curtain calls).

    With only two elements shy of the maximum score (acting and lighting), this is a very highly recommended show, and the few shortcomings won't drop the overall rating any lower than our top score A++. I feel privileged that I was able to see this show live and in person. It will be broadcast on July 7th in one of the online platforms, but for Europe only. If you have an opportunity to watch it, don't miss it. I hope a DVD is made of it: it would beat all other versions.

    If you ever suspect that my enthusiasm for this production is hyperbolic, do know that I'm in good company: Laurent Naoury just told me that tonight was the very best Pélleas et Mélisande he has participated of (and he got about 100 performances of the role), and confirmed that he also thought that it was a show in which everything clicked and everything was perfect. He wouldn't say the same for the opening night, but this performance that I attended was in his opinion the absolute best. Well, I agree. It was utterly brilliant.

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    Aix is fabulous, and I'll be doing a travel blog as well, with pics of beautiful buildings and comments on the nice food and wine. We will gather all the Aix articles in a portal, which can be consulted by clicking [here].

    For now, let's end this article with some production pictures courtesy of the Press Department at the festival, all credited to photographer Patrick Berger; and please stay tuned for more coverage.

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    The opening scene, with a devastatingly beautiful Barbara Hannigan, and Laurent Naouri
    Photo Patrick Berger

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    Same, another angle
    Photo Patrick Berger

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    Stéphane and Barbara upstairs; Sylvie and Chloé downstairs
    Photo Patrick Berger

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    The spiral staircase on the left side of the stage; Barbara and Chloé
    Photo Patrick Berger

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    Barbara, Stéphane, Laurent, and Barbara's double
    Photo Patrick Berger

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    One of the swimming pool scenes (the whole structure is not shown - it is more impressive than what is shown in this detail) - Photo Patrick Berger

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    The very moving death scene
    Photo Patrick Berger
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); July 7th, 2016 at 12:31 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    The review above now contains a couple of updates, to incorporate two or three points made by Laurent Naouri in his Opera Lively interview of today. After we interview Barbara Hannigan tomorrow maybe we'll update again, depending on what she tells us.

    Also notice that now we have a portal to congregate all the links to the Aix-en-Provence coverage articles. Click [here] to consult it.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Festat's Avatar
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    The Opera Platform will be streaming it live shortly, French or German subtitles. It will be available on demand afterwards, with English subtitles.

    Will also be broadcasted by Arte on TV and on arte.tv.

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Soave_Fanciulla's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Festat View Post
    The Opera Platform will be streaming it live shortly, French or German subtitles. It will be available on demand afterwards, with English subtitles.

    Will also be broadcasted by Arte on TV and on arte.tv.
    Yes, and it's not available in New Zealand - so I'll have to get a proxy server. So silly.
    Natalie

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    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    That's annoying -- let's hope that one of the major recording labels decides to release this in DVD/Blu-ray format.

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    Senior Member Veteran Member Povero Buoso's Avatar
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    I'm looking forward to seeing this when the English subtitles appear. I think I remember Luiz saying that Written on Skin is reminiscent of it in some ways? In addition Barbara Hannigan is a Joy to watch and listen to as she is equally good an actor as she is a singer (which is saying something as her singing in Written on Skin is sublime). Hopefully the subtitles will be up soon!
    "Non sono in vena" Rodolfo summing up P.B's feelings on his dissertation.

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    Opera Lively Media Consultant Top Contributor Member Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Soave_Fanciulla View Post
    Yes, and it's not available in New Zealand - so I'll have to get a proxy server. So silly.


    I thought you could see Opera Platform.
    "The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland."
    Lucy Maud Montgomery

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Soave_Fanciulla's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sospiro View Post


    I thought you could see Opera Platform.
    Usually it's fine but for some reason this one is restricted.
    Natalie

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Festat's Avatar
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    According to The Opera Platform the streaming rights outside of Europe have been sold to someone else. Who exactly bought it and whether or when they will make it available for the rest of the world remains a mystery.

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Festat View Post
    According to The Opera Platform the streaming rights outside of Europe have been sold to someone else. Who exactly bought it and whether or when they will make it available for the rest of the world remains a mystery.
    Darn, I thought The Opera Platform was a cultural organization with a mission of making opera accessible to the public, and now this?? Not cool.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Festat's Avatar
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    Well, The Opera Platform is not the copyright holder. They also buy the streaming rights from the copyright holder, which is usually the house. It was probably the Aix-en-Provence Festival who sold the streaming rights outside of Europe to someone else, not The Opera Platform — according to them, they just couldn't buy it.

    This has happened before with Kate Mitchell's Alcina, which, coincidentally or not, was also from Aix.

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Festat's Avatar
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    This is speculation only, but I think it is plausible to assume the company who's releasing the production on DVD and blu-ray may also buy the global streaming/broadcasting rights even though they have no intention of actually streaming or broadcasting it.

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Soave_Fanciulla's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Festat View Post
    This is speculation only, but I think it is plausible to assume the company who's releasing the production on DVD and blu-ray may also buy the global streaming/broadcasting rights even though they have no intention of actually streaming or broadcasting it.
    I don't mind buying the DVD, but what I get upset with is when they restrict the broadcast and then never even release it for purchase.
    Natalie

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