When you read that Debussy wrote, about his opera Pelleas et Melisande, that any attempt to create beauty always seems to be taken as a personal insult by some people, you can hear US opera director Robert Wilson heartily concurring. His recent productions have been damned for exhibiting a Zen-like austerity and would-be purity at the expense of the dramatic content of the works concerned. This production, from Paris’ Bastille Opera, could be seen in this light too.
In fact, I was expecting to hate this DVD. But then I came to it as someone who hadn’t enjoyed Debussy very much, and to my amazement I was more than half-converted to the music by Wilson’s production style. It taught me how to listen to the delicate web of sound, and that has to be hugely to its credit.
Almost everything visible onstage, from beginning to end, is blue. The movement has the slowness and deliberation of ancient Japanese Noh drama, with a total absence of props — no crowns, no flowers and no swords, even though all these are referred to in the text.
Admittedly there are plenty of night scenes in the work, not to mention caves “full of blue shadows” and dank vaults. But the sense of Zen marionettes in moonlight predominates, even in a scene supposedly taking place at midday. Sometimes the iconography is also reminiscent of ancient Egyptian art, not far removed from Japanese Zen in its ritualistic and stylized formality. Clearly Wilson the aesthete is imposing this style on Debussy’s masterpiece, come what may. But I was strangely moved by it, and watched it throughout with only one short break.
Musically, this is a superb product. All the reviewers on www.amazon.co.uk complain about shortcomings in the sound quality, but these must have been put right before my copy was made because its aural clarity is one of its most striking characteristics. The Orchestre de l’Opera National de Paris under Philippe Jordan is outstanding in the way it presents Debussy’s score, and the soloists match this high level. Stephane Degout shines out as Pelleas, as does Vincent Le Texier as Melisande’s husband Golaud. Elena Tsallagova is a lovely Melisande, and the production is additionally remarkable in having the great Anne Sophie von Otter in the small role of Genevieve.
John Adams is the US’ best-known opera composer, responsible among other works for Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991, on the hijacking of the cruise-ship Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985), and Dr. Atomic (2005, on Robert Oppenheimer; reviewed in the Taipei Times April 8, 2009).
His musical style discards the bleak 12-tone abstraction of the early modernist composers and replaces it with something far more rhythmic, vigorous and dramatic. All three operas mentioned above have enjoyed considerable success, often with the help of Adams’ sometime librettist and director Peter Sellars.
Now his works for string quartet have been collected on CD, performed by the youthful Attacca Quartet. There’s only one quartet as such, a two-movement work composed in 2008. The other items are John’s Book of Alleged Dances and Fellow Traveler, both written for quartet performance, though six of the ten dances also contain a pre-recorded “rhythm loop,” a repeated short section of rhythmic sound. These so-called dances are apparently considered “alleged,” because no actual dances have yet been invented to accompany them.