Two productions, both under musical direction of Valery Gergiev, could have been seen at Mariinsky Theatre on consecutive days in February 2020: Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Rodion Shchedrin’s Lolita. Both are new productions for Mariinsky Theatre: Anna Matison’s original staging of Debussy’s masterpiece opened in October 2019 and is still in its extended premiere season, while Slava Daubnerova’s production is a transferral from National Theatre in Prague (2019) with the same Russian soloists. Both operas explore erotic and love longings that lead to disasters, but the material is radically different, first being a tragedy of mythological, symbolical kind, the second exploring the individual’s strive into unknown lands of erotic wishes that are banned by society and the ensuing guilt. The differences between probably also mark the huge watershed that lies between the 19th century when fairytales, romanticism and deep connection between human souls was still possible and the following centuries of self-centered individualism and self-probing encumbered by subdued and unexpectedly exploding libidos. It is striking how different is also the general after-taste that the operas leave behind: the cathartic, freshening and empowering tears after Debussy, and tension, shock, exhaustion and pain after Shchedrin’s new opera. However, both lead the audiences to better understanding of the extremes to where human soul and body can go, with these borderlines of existence being suddenly shed light upon.

Pelléas et Mélisande, Photo by Natasha Razina © Mariinsky Theatre

Yulia Savikovskaya reviews Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy (conductor: Valery Gergiev, director Anna Matison)

Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is the only opera of the French composer. It received its premiere in 1902 at Opera Comique in Paris, conducted by André Messager and is based on the play of Belgain playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. The story line seems to resemble that of doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca, with the love triangle involving the husband (older brother) and final deaths of the two lovers. Composer saw the play in May 1893, abandoned his another project and set on the path of writing music for it, with full understanding that it is not an exotic rendering of a Middle ages love and jealosy story, but something introducing new aesthetics into the world of theatre and – possibly – music. This material allowed Debussy to explore formely unknown possibilities in orchestral and operatic writing, breaking away from Wagnerian tradition that influenced him a decade earlier. Pelléas et Mélisande still remains an important milestone in the opera history because of the new way human speech and thought is rendered in its music; the subtle, almost eery orchestral writing; and the links between sounds and the viewer’s own imagination that the opera allows to build.

Anna Matison, whose work encompasses direction, costume and set design (the latter being a collaborative work with Marcel Kalmagambetov), has sensed the presence of mysterious levity in this opera incredibly well. Together with her team that also included light designer Alexander Sivaev, choreographer Sergey Zemlyansky and video graphics designer Alexander Kravchenko, she masterfully succeeds in transforming the Mariinsky Concert Hall into a transcendent place that doesn’t belong to any time or place, where the unknown laws of existence have their unavoidable impact on fragile human lives. Paradoxically, it is easier to create this intimate globe of nothingness in the Concert Hall that is surrounded by viewers on the side and in the choir, than at the main Mariinsky stage. A huge frame of an old ship is hanging above the stage, and when Golaud arrives with his new wife, the frame slowly finds its way to the ground and remains till the end, with its narrow stem striking high towards the sky – almost like a human soul rooted to earth.

Pelléas et Mélisande, Photo by Natasha Razina © Mariinsky Theatre

This ship frame is anchored by little globes emmeshed in fishing nets – they are so beautiful that it begins to look like a little castle itself, an entity of mystery, memory, past and future. In fact, these same little globes that look like game balls are the ones that will unite Pelléas and Mélisande during the opera: they throw it to each other like children when they meet, they will have it at their walks and one of those will magically burst flowers when they confess their love. Matison uses the ship multifunctionally, as Golaud’s bed opens up as part of its structure. The well where the wedding ring will disappear is on the left, the fountain of water strikes occasionally from the ship’s figurehead representing a maid allowing a pigeon to fly. The dining table on the right with high-backed chairs surrounding it, is another piece of opera’s decoration. While always being shaded in semi-darkeness, a relatively small Concert Hall stage still looks magnificently spacious and mysterious, with the sea, forests, beach and underground passage easily imaginable.

A group of dancers/actors helps to create the opera’s unique atmosphere – they are dressed as Greek Moirai, with their mouths being covered by red ribbons and their heads and bodies engulfed in white clothes. Appearing with a big piece of material spread between them, they introduce the symbolic meaning into a particular scene (red for jealousy and fear, blue for fate or love perhaps), while in the end they reflect Golaud’s guilt with grins through a huge mirror they hold, while also marking the pace of death with beats of forks over the table.

Anna Matison introduces a special reading to existence of mysterious Mélisande (Aigul Khismatullina) by a very interesting decision: the heroine appears with a knife and a cut braid in her hand, and drops a ring she holds into the well. In the end, when her long braid again being cut off by Golaud, she wakes up, takes his knife and her braid, and murmurs something indicating she doesn’t know where she is, ready to drop the ring that Golaud put back on her finger, into a well again. She is das ewig weibliche, the eternal woman and source of love dying and resurrecting without reason an interesting interpretation by the opera director, who also empowers Mélisande with deliberate choices – she doesn’t lose Golaud’s ring in the second act, but forcefully abandons it, and she cares for Golaud out of obedience, while opening up to Arkel.

Pelléas et Mélisande, Photo by Natasha Razina © Mariinsky Theatre

Golaud (Andrey Serov) is here a deeply-tormented, multi-dimensional character who passionately loves his wife and goes through the hell of jealousy of guilt followed by attempts at forgiveness and tenderness towards his son, brother and wife. Ynold in the production is performed by a wonderful boy Alexander Palekhov who conveys a child’s naiveness mixed with adult sensitivity. When he first appears, he draws a line of fuming irons along, imagining they are his ship armada, which again brings to mind the symbol of this production – the existence of weights that keep human souls to the ground, while the liberty of sky (and death) is so near. Pelléas (Gamid Abdulov) is probably the least mysterious of all here – a youth suddenly getting too serious in his explorations. The king Arkel (Oleg Sychev) is very eloquent in his singing, while always physically tied down to the chair. He suddenly loses his blindfold towards the end, and, while holding a new-born baby in his hands, allows us to glimpse a tangible tie between life and death in this opera that is, indeed, an endeavour to explore things not-seen and unimaginable. This production powerfully reawakens our imaginations, and the tragedy of its characters’ death almost feels like a relief, a resolution, as we, together with them, can for a brief moment enter the void hovering above us, leaving the weights of little globes anchoring us to life, behind.