Exciting atmosphere of great evenings at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées where we finally hope for a full season, around, above all, staged operas – to follow after Debussy Tchaikovsky, Offenbach, Mozart and Handel, as well as a Rigoletto for children (!) In the meantime, we were very curious about this Pelléas and Mélisande directed by Eric Ruf (the administrator of the Comédie-Française) with the star couple Patricia Petibon-Stanislas de Barbeyrac.
Petibon’s “defection”, the Santoni revelation
But immediately drama: the director of TCE, Michel Franck, comes forward and announces that Patricia Petibon, victim of a “severe allergy” who made him lose his voice, is obviously incapable of singing. So she mimicked the role, Mélisande being played on stage by Vannina Santoni … Annoyance mixed with concern from the audience who feel like a bad wave.
This is not our case. Even if (let’s be mean!) We always suspect behind allergies and indispositions of less obvious reasons, as if the singers did not have the right to be sick. But (see our column of April 8) we had heard Vannina Santoni in the spring in Lille in another production of Pelléas and Mélisande and she had seduced us. She had also told us about her projects, a Tatiana from Eugene Oneguine of Tchaikovsky that she was to sing in this same Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in November …
Except that in the meantime a unexpected (as she was telling us, laughing the other night) has arisen. Santoni is waiting for a happy event which will prevent him from playing Tatiana; However, it is a Mélisande eight months pregnant that we had the good fortune to hear again, with this fragility, this clarity of emission, this perfect diction (so essential in this opera), an incarnation (even without playing) which reflects the complexity of Mélisande. It was enough to hear the comments during the intermission to understand that she had conquered the public and it is also arm in arm with Patricia Petibon that she came to greet, in a nice complicity between the two women.
Jean Teitgen, François-Xavier Roth, again
Suddenly we had the impression of going back to last spring, because, also, the role of Arcel was held again by Jean Teitgen. But this time – or is it another stage arrangement, because he was more withdrawn in Lille? – his character with a very beautiful vocal presence, stands out much more, with an often overwhelming humanity as in the magnificent final scene (Mélisande’s death) We pointed it out to him. That is sure, he replied with a smile, because we started singing again. Thus, as in an athlete, the muscles have come back to life and perhaps also, in the head, a new relief has replaced the anguish …
Third element common with Lille, and of size this one: the orchestra Centuries and its conductor François-Xavier Roth, who knows his Debussy and particularly this Pelléas intimately (it was, he recalls, the first opera he conducted 20 years ago, in Caen, having not yet created Centuries) Their work, already very beautiful in Lille, was admirable the other night, first in the constantly maintained musical line, better, marrying the text as if this one (the singers all adhering to it perfectly) were a second musical line ( or sometimes the first, and Santoni had insisted with us on the need, which is according to her the greatest difficulty of this opera, to be intelligible in the slightest syllable, and almost to privilege the diction); Roth constantly relaunching the dynamic, as if we were in a “maritime” work where each sentence is like a wave in ebb and flow. And besides, Debussy’s writing is nourished in a very subtle way by a form of leitmotivs, which are not quite, rather musical elements which resemble each other, and to which, second quality, the musicians give a masterful sound beauty (individual or collective).
The Pelléas burning with passion by Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Add to that those who were not in Lille – all the same! A remarkable Stanislas de Barbeyrac, including in the baritone register where Pelléas is often found – and moreover the role can be sung by a baritone. On condition of having some treble that is not obvious that Barbeyrac succeeds with desperate ease. His Pelléas is a lover. Passion, youthfulness, the voice at the service of passion, like a Romeo, an Alfredo, a Don José. It looks great in the hair scene, which is really reminiscent of the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet. His half-brother and “rival” (but also his murderer) is played by Simon Keenlyside (that the English, these days, have a perfect French diction!), As fair in compassion (at the beginning) as in harshness. full of the prince’s arrogance or the terrible wickedness he shows in front of Mélisande or little Yniold, his son. And it is overwhelming to be filled with remorse and overwhelmed by fate in the face of an amnesiac Mélisande, who forgives him, without knowing what, having herself forgotten that he killed Pelléas.
Lucille Richardot, very well in Geneviève; Chloé Briot: nothing to say in her incarnation of Yniold, even if one will always prefer, as in Lille, the fragility of a child, with its possible vocal imperfections (because the role of Yniold is overwhelming for a blond head), to an adult “playing”, even if she does it very well like Briot. Thibaut de Damas, finally, is a doctor of authority and collected pain.
A staging that leaves us perplexed
There remains the staging of Eric Ruf which left us a little perplexed. We cannot reproach him at least for not knowing his Maeterlinck (the author of the play) by heart, the Comédie-Française amounts it regularly. Obviously rendered the morbid, even funeral, atmosphere of the author, all this beginning in a deep twilight, with these stretched barrels of dead trees, this barely visible fountain, this sinister climate of a kingdom at the end of the world mired in disease and poverty. Decors, from this point of view, adequate (it is in general Ruf himself who designs them), even if the royal palace which looks like a dovecote in ruins is a little too much.
But we look in vain for what Ruf has to tell us about this story where so many mysteries circulate, on the relationships of the characters and especially on this enigmatic Mélisande of whom Jeanneteau, in Lille, had the very good idea to make a wild child. Here, Mélisande repeats from the start that she is not happy but Ruf is content to look at her submissive, in her long princess dresses where she is imprisoned (in the fashion of 1900, Geneviève wearing the same type of outfit, in black this time, while all the men are in sober, almost contemporary costumes. Creations by Christian Lacroix, insisting a little too much on the symbol of the imprisonment of clothing for women). Thus the unhappy Petibon, with rare gestures, wanders most often when she does not collapse on the ground, without anyone knowing exactly, even in the feelings that she seems to have for Pelléas, the degree of her desires, the the intensity of his pain, or even the pleasure in which his discomfort takes pleasure.
the low tide weather according to Eric Ruf
This lack of vision is fortunately coupled with a sense of rhythm, a quality of setting in space, which earned us some very beautiful passages, the final scene, the hair coming down from the tower (and Petibon’s freckle, the only stain of color in this universe of soot and night, intimately participates in the beauty of the passage) But, reading Ruf’s declarations of intention, we understand perhaps … why we did not understand. Ruf insists, in a very fine phrase, on the weather at low tide: to consent slowly … in a theater of amazement and childhood where the characters represent a mystery but above all for themselves. And imagine a parallel Brittany, a kingdom of Germany … hidden, glimpsed, barely discovered. None of the characters is mentioned by Ruf, and especially not the two main ones.
So that the enigma of Pelléas and Mélisande persists, and even sinks into the night.
Pelléas and Mélisande by Claude Debussy, directed by Eric Ruf, musical direction by François-Xavier Roth. Champs-Elysées Theater, Paris.
Next performances: October 11, 13 and 15 at 7:30 p.m.
At the time of writing, it is impossible for us to say if Vannina Santoni will continue to sing the role from the edge of the stage or if Patricia Petibon will take it back in full.