When an opera production comes across as tiresome, it’s best to take a deep breath before pronouncing on it. Perhaps I watched it in the wrong frame of mind or else was influenced by another, favourite version. After all, I came to this Grand Théâtre de Geneva production just days after being bowled over by a staging of Pelléas et Mélisande streamed from the Opéra de Rouen Normandie, so maybe it was inevitable I’d feel deflated by this one. You can decide for yourself as both productions are currently free to view.

Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas) and Mari Eriksmoen (Mélisande)
© Grand Théâtre de Genève | Magali Dougados

That deep breath has yielded one or two redeeming points. The hi-gloss stage design (Marina Abramović, set and concept; Marco Brambilla, video director) must look spectacular when viewed life-size in three dimensions, as the creative team intended, rather than flattened into a 16:9 TV image where it simply looks fussy. The opposite is true of the seven half-naked male dancers who writhe their way through the entire show, however. Seen from a seat in the auditorium they may conceivably make a contribution worth watching but most of the time they are filmed here in extreme close-up, a choice that says much for their physical endowments and the health of their sweat glands but makes for intrusive viewing in an opera whose moods are rather less obvious. Their hyperactivity (choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet, both also credited as directors) makes it nigh impossible to concentrate on Debussy’s great Interludes, even though Jonathan Nott and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande render these with exquisite panache, especially the magnificent one in Act 4. The musicians deserve better.

Mari Eriksmoen (Mélisande) and Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas)
© Grand Théâtre de Genève | Magali Dougados

Heroes emerge in adversity, and as well as Nott there are sterling turns from Leigh Melrose as a pugilistic Golaud, a role the British baritone sings with unerring conviction despite the prevailing madness, and from the venerable Arkel of Matthew Best, who likewise focuses on keeping his head when all around are losing theirs. Best carries a cane to steady the old king’s aged frame and he clings to it for dignity while delivering a beautifully shaded reading of his vital but underwritten part. Yvonne Naef is a pleasing Geneviève and Marie Lys a melodious if unapologetically feminine – no, female – Yniold, who’s tasked with pushing the biggest play ball a child ever owned.

Mari Eriksmoen sings very pleasantly as Mélisande but is not guided towards any kind of interpretation and ends up as a voice rather than a character. All the great Mélisandes find vocal ways to intrigue and beguile the audience in a role that demands far more than foursquare singing, but the Norwegian soprano has not yet cracked it and the production offers her little or no help. There’s a sense that her Pelléas, the distinguished and experienced Jacques Imbrailo, is moved to overcompensate for his opposite number’s bland performance, for how else to explain his edginess? That sumptuous lyrical baritone is in fine fettle but he layers on the sobs beyond the point where they’re an idiomatic embellishment.

Leigh Melrose (Golaud) and Mari Eriksmoen (Mélisande)
© Grand Théâtre de Genève | Magali Dougados

For the rest, viewers are invited to pick their way through a forest of clashing ideas. The dancers swing between illustrating the plot, articulating characters’ inner turmoil and scene shifting a collection of phallic obelisks, all of which they accomplish with professional if misdirected skill. Their busy-ness is only equalled by Brambilla’s grand centrepiece: a giant, all-seeing video-disc-cum-planetarium that shapeshifts in concentric distractions, invariably to little effect. Mélisande’s newborn child is a pre-adolescent girl, we're not told why. So much nebulous action suggests a pair of directors who don’t trust the composer, or else don’t understand him, and who harbour such terror of being tedious that they’ve rustled up a multimedia circus with the opera as soundtrack. Perversely, by seeking to allay boredom they’ve made the whole thing dull.


This performance was reviewed from the OperaVision video stream

**111