Theatre des Bouffes du Nord 2023 Review: Mélisande

Actor Judith Chemla was brilliant in Hubert and Brunel’s adaption of ‘Pelléas and Mélisande’

By João Marcos Copertino

“Mélisande” by Florent Hubert and stage director Richard Brunel is a post-modern reading of Claude Debussy and Maurice Maeterlinck’s masterpiece “Pelléas et Mélisande.” The music was completely rearranged to be played by five instruments, and many characters and scenes were chopped off. Given the fact that Debussy’s opera is a theatrical and musical colossus, what does one gain by destroying and reconstructing the whole opera? A lot, apparently. Hubert and Brunel managed to bring back the musicality of the text and, sometimes, even the textuality of the music.

An Intimate Adaptation of Debussy’s Opera

Dispensing much of the orthodoxy regarding operatic voices, Hubert’s arrangement allows actors to sing Debussy’s lines without exposing projection limitations of their instruments. That is not to say, however, that the demands of this production were not extremely high. In this “Mélisande,” the actors, when singing, must express through the text a musicality and eloquence that is currently absent in most of the biggest opera houses.

“Mélisande,” then, recovers a sense of intimacy and preciousness, placing the opera in its original dramaturgical milieu. All opera is theater, but here it is especially true. The voices, fragile and vulnerable, rarely sound improper for the score. The fact that it is all sung live, without any amplification, makes everything only more palpable. The sufferings of Mélisande are literally there in front of the audience. The ensemble plays from the backstage; the actors sing inches away from the faces of those in the audience.

Music as a Privilege

Music, in “Mélisande” becomes the privilege of Pelléas and Mélisande, the characters. Meanwhile, the ensemble players and everyone else only speak. This bold creative decision transforms Golaud, here closely associated with Bluebeard, into a loveless violent figure. It simplifies his character, stressing how his attitude towards Mélisande is shaped by his nature as a hunter, and is not so different from his relation to his prey. In place of a character progression through the drama, Golaud is the same figure from the first scene to the last, implying that the man Mélisande ran away from before the opera started was Golaud himself.

Music, then, is made a privilege of love. Therefore, to sing is an act of love or a marker that one has loved. In that odd twist, the operatic vocal line sounds more proper to everyday life than any speaking, as if everyone should sing.

An Actor Who Sings, Not an Singer Who Acts

The sense of “live performance” is there in every single moment. If you listen to Judith Chemla singing fragments of “La Traviata” and “Tosca” online with her accordion, it’s not bad, but it’s not on par with Callas, Tebaldi, or Gheorghiu. However, that is precisely the point. Chemla’s singing ought not to be musically precise; it is textuality effective, even, or especially, in its imprecision. She is an actor who can sing, instead of the operatic tradition of singers who try to act and sometimes succeed. Chemla, a former pensioner at the Comédie-Française, is a classically trained actress with an inclination toward depictions of a tragic self. Her movements are by any measure extreme, but they work exceptionally well. She invites the audience into an oneiric world where she can sing, act, and dance. If “Mélisande” works out, it is because of her.

Chemla’s voice, though imperfect, works well in such a small ensemble and such a small theater, Bouffes du Nord, known by some through the film “Diva.” Her voice, surprisingly, sounds mostly operatic. At one moment, in the high notes in the fourth-act duo, her lack of great technique bothered me a little. However, she has that rare quality of the grain once defined by Roland Barthes. The French scholar’s notion of “grain” deals with an idea of singing, if not playing, in which there are no gaps separating music, language, and the singer’s own body. As if the sound, the body that produced it, and the text were all blended together. That essay’s polemics aside (Barthes really did not think much of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, which is disheartening), it’s hard find better words to describe Chemla’s talent. She incorporated the grain in her singing. And she allowed music to be an elegant beaming of ineffable meaning. Barthes himself acknowledged how much the grain is a requirement when performing “Pelléas,” what I did not expected is that Chemla would make me both verbose and speechless.

Strong Singing and Fresh Character Portrayals

Benoît Rameau, vocally a better-trained performer, is a good pair to Chemla’s strong performance. While he is not as scenically impressive as his peers, he preserved a sense of musicality throughout the night and took many risks on the stage. His Pelléas had great command of Debussy’s tricky melody lines and great vocal clarity. His voice, a baritenor, suits the role quite well, and it is amazing that he also plays the saxophone in the ensemble, making Pelléas a verbalization of music.

From the other pole, the scenic, Jean -Yves Ruf as Golaud is the representation of brutality and intransigence. The actor eats raw meat and has a strips of the meat of hunted deer scattered throughout his castle. If Maeterlinck and Debussy leave much room for ambiguity in the construction of such a character, in “Mélisande” his nocive nature is straightforward. Antoine Besson as the doctor (also playing Arkel and Yniold) proves an actor with much range.

The ensemble played extremely well—particularly Marion Sicouly on the harp. The ensemble arrangements worked most of the night, though a couple of times, the percussion part was disturbingly loud for such an intimist mise-en-scene.

Anouk Dell’Aiera’s scenarios work exceptionally well on the stage. They are not particularly pretty, but they increase the theatricality of the spectacle. The lights of Victor Egéa and Maxence Ellul are simply fantastic. “Pelléas” and “Mélisande” require mostly blue lights, and it is very hard to make it work without making the stage simply too cold or too sleepy. The lighting team managed to keep their work in the land of the oneiric without ever falling into somnolence territory.

“Mélisande” is not “Pelléas et Mélisande,” but instead offers a theatrical take on the opera that enriches the audience’s view of the original work. Moreover, the superb acting of Judith Chemla invites us to reassess our takes on what operatic singing should sound/look like. She is such a good actress that it might even elude our notice that she is a prima donna.


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