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I just got back from a breathtaking "Pelleas et Melisande" at the new Opera House in Copenhagen. First, the building: from the back/pedestrian side, it looks pretty much like a regular building. The front is what is spectacular from the outside, and it takes a water approach at night for the full impact. I'd just gotten in after a week of -10C to -20C in Tallinn to find a balmy -5C in Copenhagen, but that was too cold to deal with waiting for water transport. The inside is just generally spectacular, for a combination of woods-- the inside of the auditorium and the giant wooden apple/cocoon facade -- steel and glass (the lobby), and sweeping round shape. The only miss for me were the giant ball chandeliers that looked like faceted Christmas tree ornaments: with the gold and rainbow mirror effect, they looked tacky, not quite whimsical and not elegant. The gold in particular wasn't needed, since the wooden apple gave the steel and glass the warmth it needed. Maybe I'm missing a design context and that for Copenhagen, this is what whimsical extravagance is.

Oddly, while someone looked at my ticket as I entered, and there were servers at the bar during intermission and people selling programs, there were no ushers that I could see, nor much signage apart from the level. People were on their own, and we all figured it out. I had a wonderful seat slightly off center in the first balcony. Seating is continental style, with no center aisle.

Now the opera, a production by director Guy Joosten, set designer Johannes Leiacker, costume designer Jorge Jara, and lighting designer Davy Cunningham. The costumes were turn-of-the-century for everyone but Melisande, who was dressed in generic diaphanous. The set, on a revolving platter, was like a pie cut into thirds. The base for each set was a narrow flat back wall at center with a fireplace, with the main walls angling downstage. The walls were covered in red flocked (I assume painted) fabric, with trompe l'oeuil marble baseboard and top moldings and narrow columns to divide the walls, and there was one large working door on each main wall, through which some characters moved from set to set. In each section, there was a dining room table and chairs that served as the center, and one section was the room straight. In another, there was the room with trees, including a large fallen tree stump, and in the last, there were rocks and boulders. In Melisande's death scene, the basic set was used, and the dining room table turned for Melisande to face downstage, with mirrored screens across the set behind her bed.

Before I left for Europe, I watched the first act of the 2007 Tcherniakov/Bolshoi "Eugene Onegin" -- the production that made Galina Vishnevskaya so verklempt -- and it was set entirely at the huge dining room table. I was struck by how the sense of control and convention that the formality and rituals of the meal conveyed, and the same thing was true in this production. It was more intimate than the "Eugene Onegin" setting, and most of the opera was directed as if it were a play by one of the great Scandinavian contemporaries of Debussy, Strindberg or Ibsen. The brilliance of the sets and costumes was that they provided the context, repressive civilization vs. nature, both untamed and dangerous and delicate. It was a nervy, neurotic tense production that portrayed one of the most dysfunctional families in opera: the emotional delicacy and violence and the nervous-breakdown-in-the-making that is "Pelleas et Melisande". The orchestra, while it did have ravishing, delicate moments, was more robust than Gallic with the score. (The conductor was Marc Soustrot.) The concept and the conducting might not have been completely authentic, but they taught me a lot about the opera.

The direction was thoughtful, if full of ambient noise, like soup plates clinking -- the family ate a lot of soup -- and, like in the "Onegin", dining room chairs crashing to the floor. It was presented with one intermission for the five acts. The only possible outlier interpretation was having King Arkel try to molest Melisande during his Act II monologue, during which he asks her to kiss him; most of the productions I've seen of the opera portrayed the character as sympathetic but ineffectual. Golaud entered through the stage right door and watched the end of that scene until he slammed the door to announce his arrival to them. There was dog imagery to reflect the opening, taped barking hunting dogs, that appeared later to chilling effect after Golaud stabbed Pelleas in the woods. At one point, Pelleas imitated a dog, and when Golaud attacked Melisande and pulled her hair, she was on all fours, like a dog. The opera ended as it started, but with a young girl in Melisande's place, weeping by a stream.

The servant women who appeared during Melisande's death scene all had long, gray wigs, with hair down their backs like Melisande's. It was like they were elderly Wilis.

There was a longish pre-curtain announcement, apparently told with humor, and when Golaud made his first appearance on stage, Armand Arapian appeared downstage left in black tie. He sang while the (I assume) indisposed Johannes Mannov lip-synched and acted the performance. The direction was detailed and complicated enough that it would have been impossible for a cover without extensive stage rehearsals to do the role, which included a leap onto the table to attack Melisande. Like the conducting, the singing was robust, although Arapian had some ravishing, sotto voce moments where the orchestra was almost transparent. The Genvieve, mezzo-soprano Anette Bod, was spot on in the letter scene and as an actress present for about a third of the scenes. Bass Anders Jakobsson had some solid moments as Arkel, particularly in his early scene, but in his later scene with his monologue, his voice was oddly wobbly for stretches. Baritone Palle Knudsen was convincing vocally and dramatically as Pelleas. I prefer baritones to tenors in the role, and he showed the most color of all the singers in this performance. The Melisande, Elisabeth Janssen, was affecting in a very difficult role to portray convincingly. Although her voice isn't very warm, I liked it.

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Fascinating, all of it. Love the descriptions of the Opera House. This opera is never perfect, is it? I don't think I've ever seen a live or recorded version that I have ever found satisfying, although I'm sure they exist. I think there is a Welsh Opera with Boulez conducting that isn't quite either, even though Boulez knew how to get the orchestra as it must be. As I read your account, I began to realize that this opera needs the kind of care thay Bayreuth gives to Wagner, and maybe such a thing does occur or has occurred, but I think it needs something electric going through it, somehow a concentration that is nearly impossible to sustain. And yet without this concentration and 'buzz', you get the sense ot tedium that the inexperienced or even ignorant and musically illiterate listener can easily determine is 'all there is to this'. Okay, so those of us who are familiar with the opera get beyond having to think that way, still...it almost never works. Have you ever seen a production that you thought had this focus and Bayreuthian concentration from beginning to end, so that even intermissions didn't break it? I haven't. And I am sure it needs that, plus I think that the tempi need to be sped up, and the orchestra must be absolutely flawless, the singers impeccable. As I write this, I think what I am writing seems extreme and ridiculous, but it was because of reading your review that I am now 100% sure that this is one of the most extravagant and demanding works ever made: It needs almost a special small opera house just for its own performance. It is nearly impossi8ble to get a good Pelleas, although I have seen and heard good Melisandes. Golaud is usually adequate in productions I've seen. And I don't like Yniold most of the time. All that 'mon petit pere' is so precious and silly as to be nearly unbearable sometimes (and it's lengthy too), even though I adore Debussy as much as any composer who ever lived. But I've never seen this Yniold business done well but once, and believe it or not, it was the New York City Opera that got the Yniold that literally stole the show in that production; although Patricia Brooks was extremely good as Melisande in that long-ago productions. Did you see that, Helene? I do confess to not seeing the Met's production from the 70s and 80s, which was supposed to be excellent. That NYCOpera production was in general surprisingly good, I saw it a couple of times.

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I was too much of a Verdi/Puccini wuss to go when Brooks was performing it, and I am very sad that I missed her Melisande. I must admit, I wanted to push Yniold into the fireplace.

I didn't buy the program and forgot to check the English website to note the intermission, and while it was being performed, I thought they might perform it end-to-end. I wish they had.

It's interesting that you mention tempo, because the orchestra kept the tension in the interludes, which gave it the feeling of moving and may have made the tempos seem faster than they actually were.

I heard a wonderful Pelleas by baritone Russell Braun in August 2003 in concert version. Jonathan Darlington brought more color to the score, but either a slower pace or less tension.

It really is so, so difficult to cast and stage this! Director Joosten did a remarkable job.

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Thanks for sharing that. Although I've had a look round the public areas, I've never been to a performance in the main auditorium, only to the studio theatre within the same complex. I can understand not wanting to wait for the boat on a cold night but that taxi journey is a very round about route.

The mention of Pelleas et Melisande puts me in mind of a performance of it in London not long ago that I remember most for the bizarre behaviour of the (hugely over-rated in my opinion) conductor Simon Rattle turning to the audience and angrily berating them for coughing. As I had only heard the odd cough I found his reaction untoward and one of the opera goers who turned up every night agreed, saying there had been far more coughing on other nights. In London it's rare for conductors to get above themselves like that.

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Helene, I have to say I just love the chandeliers! For me they add light and warmth and fun, and besides they make wonderful photographs.

They've stopped using the studio theatre, incidentally, except for occasional talks - the theatre's finances have been severely stretched by the added expenses of the the Opera and the new Playhouse, and they're looking for all possible ways of cutting back. Next season there are to be fewer productions, too, though I think they're only cutting one from the ballet schedule.

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