The two Danieles – Gatti and Abbado – triumphed in the final opera of the 78th Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the annual music festival in Florence. This heavenly new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was an entirely Italian production. If not without its flaws, the many high points easily outweighed them. Abbado offered an abstract staging, with intoxicating lighting and superlative singers. With crystalline transparency, Gatti led an eye-opening Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the crown jewel of this production.

Abbado pulled off a complexly engineered, but spellbinding scenery. On stage, a concrete looking ellipse formed the centre of action, based on Maeterlinck's symbolist play. Depending on the setting of the scenes, the structure’s perspective changed, which kept the audience thoroughly engaged as it moved into different geometrical constructions. While in the palace, the ellipse formed a bleak, imprisoning enclosure, yet in Act III when Pelléas feels he is suffocating, but when he can finally breath, the structure expands into the corners of the stage, breaking the confines of the ellipse. Another cleverly directed moment occurs in Act IV, when Pelléas and Mélisande declare their love for each other, right before Golaud kills him. Then the confining eclipse fragments into pieces, scattered on stage.  

For the scenes in nature, Abbado changed the structure. In Act II at the water fountain, when Mélisande loses her wedding ring, a tree hangs upside down, creating the effect of the two lovers bending over the ellipse, as if looking down into a pool. Later, when Pelléas and Mélisande enter the grotto, a second, smaller, ellipse is formed behind the first one, creating the depth of the cave featuring stalactitic yellow and orange blurrily lit beams.

Eye-popping effects came from Gianni Carluccio’s lighting. Whiteness, darkened or brightened, accentuated the stunted state of the royal palace, while darkness always surrounded the cuckolded Golaud. In the scenes at the castle, in the centre background of the ellipse hung a canvas of a violent, Rothko-esque blotch of redness, smeared with patches of yellow: captivatingly abstract. During the romantic scenes between Pelléas and Mélisande, lapis inkblots with orange or yellow rays complemented Debussy’s music. Different shades of aquarel blue lighting coloured the structure when set outside in nature. 

The singers mostly performed stunningly, but the star of the night was Monica Bacelli, whose phrasing conveyed Mélisande’s fragility, gentle warmth, and fears. She even intoned her lines with wit, when she claimed she never lies, except to her husband. Humour also came from Roberto Frontali as Golaud, when the older brother suggests the two lovers are just young children, unwilling to acknowledge their love affair right under his nose. Frontali also outshone Paolo Fanale as Pelléas, as his voice overcame the intensity of the orchestra, something with which Fanale’s gentle voice struggled. Roberto Scandiuzzi (with a strange Fu Man Chu moustache) portrayed the ageing Arkel with surprising lightness and optimism. Silvia Frigato characterised Golaud’s son Yniold convincingly, performing a disarming solo in Act IV.

The final act was a big disappointed, however. The long set change detracted from the overall momentum, as even Gatti had to halt the orchestra until the stage was ready. The removal of all geometrical structures and colourful lighting turned the stage into a vast plane of white brightness, reminiscent of hospital sterility. Act V, when Mélisande lays dying on an upright placed bed, felt long winded, and I actually stopped caring about what was going, exposing what made the production so great: the intense chemistry earlier between the two main characters enriched by the intense colours.

Gatti masterfully led the orchestra throughout, determinedly sculpting Debussy’s score as if Michelangelo working on his David. With continuous transparency, deeply glowing strings, brooding double basses, whimsical woodwinds, romanticizing harps and barely audible timpani simmering in the background, Gatti revealed what a terrific orchestra they have in Florence. The Opera di Firenze’s exquisite acoustics (you can hear people whispering far away) improved Gatti’s interpretation. They probably would never have anticipated this, but the De Medicis would be smiling in their graves, with Florence’s new opera house and this fabulous production in the birthplace of opera.