Teatro Colón 2018 Review: Pelléas et Mélisande

Véronica Cangemi, Giuseppe Filianoti, David Maze Are Sensation In Powerful Production

By David Salazar

Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” is one of opera’s greatest works and on Friday night, the Teatro Colón, in a production by Susanna Gómez (continuing the work of its original director, the late Gustavo Tambascio), reminded everyone why.

The French work is often mentioned in the same breath as Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” undeniably because the composer was, at that time, still devoted to Wagner and because the work’s plot still has echoes of what the German master was doing. And yet, Debussy was always looking for a new approach to opera. People at the time were looking for ways to move beyond Wagner’s inventions and create a new style for the art form. Debussy’s work both looks back to Wagner, while also pushing through with his own musical style while rejecting much of Wagner.

Whereas a five-hour work like “Tristan und Isolde” is all about outward expression of emotion from a repressive world, “Pélleas et Mélisande,” which is three hours shorter, chooses to explore the ambiguity of said passion. The theme of blindness and the prevalence of shadow is at the core of the opera. Golaud repeats the idea that he is a blind man, unable to ever see the infidelity of his wife with his brother. His attempts to get his son to be his eyes also fails. Characters constantly enter dark areas and what they see is often something they want to look away from. The work is set in a palace where the skies are not visible. Characters constantly find themselves in dark forests or by the ocean, with its vast depth.

Blindness & Transcendence

These themes were clearly on the minds of Tambascio, who conceived the production before his untimely death this season, and Gómez, who brought it to fruition. The color black is everywhere in this production, emphasizing this sense of darkness everywhere. There is only one scene where the palette shiftings to brightness and light – the third scene of the third act. This scene’s contrast explores the differences between Pelléas and his brother in their only scenes together. The preceding scene shows them in the basements of the palace, a dark and oppressive space with a ladder in the center. Once the characters exit, we are greeted with sunlight and our first glimpses of color; Pelléas sense of life and youthful vigor contrasts with Golaud’s dark interior. The “walls” that appear throughout the production lend a sense of oppressiveness to the environment, as does the screen downstage, that remains throughout the production.

Perhaps the most potent symbol that appears onstage is a fallen statue of a giant figure holding its hands over its eyes – blindness. Of course, one may also interpret the position as that of tragedy, the horrors of the work too unspeakable to even want to see. The characters actually play atop this figure and interact on it throughout the work, the statue constantly rotating. One almost gets the sense that the characters don’t even notice what it is, further emphasizing that they are all blind to the tragedy unfolding before their eyes. When Yniold complains about its heaviness at one point, the symbol’s sense of inevitability is further emphasized.

One of the production’s most remarkable moments comes at the start of the third Act when Mélisande and Pelléas’ romance really takes flight. Two towers enter from stage left and right, each one opening up to showcase the two lovers stuck in separate rooms. In the center, we see the large statue, turned away from us, but featuring two silent characters sitting on it. While Mélisande and Pelléas flirt in separate rooms, the two figures, revealed to be representations of the two doomed lovers, start drawing closer and closer, the sexual tension rising. While Mélisande and Pélleas, the real ones, start to suggest their own sexual rapture in their separate rooms, we feel that the two figures in the center are living out their sexual fantasies, emphasizing the two characters emotional connection. Locked in the towers, they can’t see one another at all, but their shared imagination proves even more potent, the directors suggesting the transcendence of love being beyond simple reality. It also adds to the tragedy of Golaud’s need to “see” to get the proof he needs. He sees love manifesting itself only in the physical, while Pelléas and Mélisande both understand its deeper, more spiritual bond. Interestingly, Golaud interrupts not the real Pelléas and Mélisande, but the “dream” couple, expressing how his presence is disruptive on a number of levels for the titular characters.

The brilliance of the production is given its life by the vibrant performances assembled to interpret it.

Two Passionate & Maturing Lovers

Argentinean soprano Véronica Cangemi delivered a knockout performance as Mélisande, seizing control of every scene from start to close. The work explores contrasts of emotion with her from one scene to the next. In one moment she is afraid and lost in the woods. The next time we see her, she is flirting with Pelléas in the gardens. After another “love scene” with the eponymous character, she is once again “unhappy” in her meeting with her husband Golaud. A scene of emotional torture at the hands of her husband gives way to one of passion with Pelléas. Of course, by the end, she dies. A great Mélisande takes on this rollercoaster journey seamlessly, allowing us to see the complexity of Mélisande’s position as an object of affection being pulled in numerous directions by those that “want” her. In this way, the emotional ambiguity of Debussy’s work can come through more potently. Cangemi allowed us to experience this palette of colors with an instrument that grows richer and richer by the evening. Her initial encounter with Golaud was marked by a pointed quality, which contrasted with greater richness in her scenes with Pelléas. The first scene of the third act, with its incredible stage direction and musical vibrancy, was a hallmark moment for the soprano, her voice ringing vibrantly through the hall in reply to Pelléas’ own romantic interplay. The encounter with Golaud at the start of Act four was quite powerful. Despite not having much to sing, Cangemi’s struggle with abuse was extremely visceral, adding a true sense of tragedy to Mélisande’s situation. We know her sadness about not being able to be with the man she loves, but now we also know that her unhappiness comes from a far deeper source of pain. Her final scene was also quite powerful in how the soprano’s voice became delicate, her tone never rising above a piano sound; this new color really emphasized her incoming death.

The role of Pelléas suited tenor Giuseppe Filianoti quite well, the lower tessitura allowing the tenor to make great use of his middle register, where his timbre resonated most brilliantly and with great ease and flexibility. The Italian singer took great advantage of this opportunity afforded him, giving Pelléas a vocal and emotional arc that explored a sense of maturity over the course of the evening. The opening scenes with Mélisande were jovial, the tenors voice light and gentle, his tone rather collected with no sign of true strength. Likewise, he shifted about, moved about, always with a smile on his face. In the first scene of Act three, he sang with a gentleness and grace that expressed the sense of flirtation that Debussy wrote for the scene. But Filianoti went deeper, digging into the sensuality of the stage direction, his voice gaining in strength throughout as the interaction with Mélisande grew more intense. All the while, he slowly undressed, his hand gestures ever more suggestive, adding to the rapture of the scene. Suddenly, the boy became a man. This continued in his final scene, where his sense of intensity and passion took over. One could sense the build-up, not only in his singing but in the characterization as he anxiously looked about until finally he rushed to Mélisande and said the words we have awaited – “Je t’aime.” Upon hearing her reciprocal response, Filianoti launched into his final vocal lines with greater vocal firmness, the ensuing tragedy all the more devastating.

The Tragedy of Golaud

Despite not dying, Golaud may be the opera’s most tragic character. Unable to shake off his insecurity, Golaud wants to believe something that hasn’t happened. It is true that his wife and brother are in love with one another, but they have done their utmost to respect the situation. But Golaud insists that he has been betrayed and ultimately acts out on this false belief to tragic end for both titular characters. Baritone David Maze gave a powerful rendition of the character, exploring his volatility and madness throughout. It took him some time to warm up vocally, his sound hard and his vibrato shaky in the early instances of the evening. He certainly came off as cold and icy at the start, but as the night wore on, his voice found its verve, his sound growing more vibrant, even if he molded it into a weapon throughout. With every passing scene, we could feel his fury growing and his singing only grew more and more violent. The scenes with his son Yniold (Act three) and then Mélisande (Act four) were HIS scenes, the latter featuring the baritone at his most violent. Every phrase he spouted carried razor edge, every word a dagger. The way he dragged Cangemi about and threw her to the floor before pouncing on her is a brutal image that will not easily be forgotten. But by the same token, the final scene allowed the character’s dimensionality and complexity to take full force. We saw him sway between a gentleman, his voice rising to an ethereal “Mélisande” before again doing inner battle with his doubt and “need” to know the truth.

Vibrant Maestro With Other Standouts

Bass Lucas Debevec Mayer, interpreting the role of the King Arkel, was undeniably a powerful vocal figure in his major scenes, though his characterization allows us to witness his own weakness as a moral figure in the story. At one moment, he forces a kiss on Geneviève, which is quickly rejected. Later on, we see him do the same with Mélisande, to no such rejection. The contrast illuminates us about the two women but also shows the King as the poor example that allows Golaud to behave the way he does toward Mélisande.

The production made an interesting decision in casting a young teen in the role of Yniold, as opposed to a soprano, which is common practice. Taking on the task was Marianella Nervi Fadol, who acquitted herself quite well throughout the night, particularly in her interactions with Maze. The power dynamic between the two was truly palpable, the latter transforming from a carefree child to one oppressed and frightened.

The other major singers of the production, Adriana Mastrángelo, Cristian De Marco, and Alejo Laclau also delivered strong performances in their more limited stage time.

In the pit, Maestro Enrique Arturo Diemecke led a sensation Orquesta Estable del Teatro Colón in an exquisite reading of Debussy’s music. Every note was finely etched, the ebbs and flows always in full force. The tempi constantly pushed forward, the conductor allowing the ensemble’s incredible sense of balance to shine through. We always felt the presence of the orchestra, though it was never overburdening to the balance with the singers. It simply felt cohesive from the opening wind passages through the opera’s final notes. Special mention must be made of the close of Act three with its frenetic sense and build, the sudden ending of the act left audiences quiet for a few seconds, the tension from the musical build-up still alive. Not quite so “potent” aurally but just as visceral dramatically was Pelléas’ entrance in the fourth act, accompanied by lower strings. The weight of the string section in this particular passage was foreboding, frightening, and immersive in how it made the listener feel a part of the incoming tragedy. These are but two moments in a breathtaking interpretation.

There are but three more performances left and anyone in Buenos Aires should undeniably jump at the chance to catch one of the greatest operas ever written in an interpretation that does justice to its power.


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