Claus Guth’s production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande for Oper Frankfurt understandably won prizes when it was new in 2012. Then built around the performances of Christian Gerhaher and Christiane Karg in the title roles, it has emerged again with new principals and tight direction that make one understand what all the fuss was about first time around - it is one of the most beautifully realised and satisfying productions of the opera I have experienced.

Gaëlle Arquez (Mélisande) and Björn Bürger (Pelléas) © Barbara Aumüller
Gaëlle Arquez (Mélisande) and Björn Bürger (Pelléas)
© Barbara Aumüller

Guth’s perceptive interpretation intriguingly plays off realism against mystery. The basic set, by Christian Schmidt, is a two-tier cutaway of a smart middle-class home from Debussy’s time, though Nordic family saga is perhaps another visual reference point. Looming above the dining table is a portrait of Golaud’s late first wife and there’s the persistent sense of a handful of family members trapped together in a world of their own, a world living in the past. ‘King’ Arkel trundles about the place without really having any authority, noticeably turning a blind eye to the abuse Golaud metes out to Mélisande in Act 4. The house is like a cage, and grandson Yniold, with no one of his own age to play with, is a frequent presence and often an annoyance to his elders. The attention to detail in the direction of these usually subsidiary characters is fascinating, and while I usually tire of directors trying to clutter their productions with multiple levels of activity, here it is subtly done and everything makes sense in the context of the whole.

Gaëlle Arquez (Mélisande) © Barbara Aumüller
Gaëlle Arquez (Mélisande)
© Barbara Aumüller
While sun- and moonlight flood in through the windows of these interior scenes, when the set sweeps to one side and we move outside we find it is perpetual night, with characters standing in single beams of snowy light and with faceless figures looming in the background. Here we seem to be in the main characters’ true emotional space: here Golaud first finds the distraught Mélisande and later goads Yniold into spying for him; here Pelléas and Mélisande finally openly declare their mutual love and they both meet their deaths, he at the hands of Golaud, she walking off into the dark with one last fruitless but touching attempt at taking Pelléas with her on her journey – there’s ultimately no escape from the loneliness of Allemonde.

Stepping into Gerhaher and Karg’s shoes this time around are Björn Bürger and Gaëlle Arquez. Bürger, Glyndebourne’s Barber last season and Ariadne Harlekin this summer, is a particularly charismatic performer, but here held back somewhat until the Act 4 declaration of love, to telling dramatic effect. His lyric, subtly inflected baritone was a match for Arquez’s often sumptuous and seductive soprano – her Mélisande is no waif but a victim of her own passions. Brian Mulligan’s sturdy Golaud grew vocally and dramatically through the evening from a rather pallid start to a compelling study in jealousy and inner turmoil. Anthony Muresan’s ‘petit’ Yniold was a remarkably mature stage performance for a 14/15-year-old, and his singing had inflection and subtlety worthy of any adult artist; with stage credits in Paris and Berlin already to his name, his could well be an operatic future to watch. Judita Magyová sang warmly as Geneviève and Opera Studio member Thesele Kemane gave a distinguished cameo as the doctor in the final scene.

Brian Mulligan (Golaud) and Gaëlle Arquez (Mélisande) © Barbara Aumüller
Brian Mulligan (Golaud) and Gaëlle Arquez (Mélisande)
© Barbara Aumüller

Last but by no means least was the orchestral performance under the direction of Joana Mallwitz, guesting from her position as general music director in Erfurt. With generally swift tempi (some 15 minutes were lopped off the originally advertised running time), she galvanised everyone involved into a sweeping view of Debussy’s masterpiece that lost none of the detail, drawing out every minute colour in the scoring and providing plenty of atmosphere as well as momentum. The score hasn’t sounded this sheerly beautiful since the glory days of Abbado and Boulez.

*****