After the first performance of Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, Romain Rolland called it “one of the three or four red-letter days in the history of our lyric stage”. Yet with little in the way of traditional melody and only four instances of fortissimo orchestration in its almost four-hour duration, Debussy’s sole opera was a clear divergence from its Romantic, melodious predecessors, and offered fewer opportunities for showy vocal display. Among the many critics who wrote of it dismissively at the time, one Henry Adams alleged that “rhythm, song and tonality were three things unknown to Monsieur Debussy”.

Andrew Foster-Williams (Golaud), Elsa Benoit (Mélisande) and Rolf Romei (Pelléas) © Priska Ketterer
Andrew Foster-Williams (Golaud), Elsa Benoit (Mélisande) and Rolf Romei (Pelléas)
© Priska Ketterer

Yet today, Pelléas et Mélisande is widely hailed as a masterpiece, despite its being a perplexing work. The composer adapted its libretto from Maurice Maeterlinck’s eponymous Symbolist play, an adaptation which the playwright disliked intensely. Debussy’s opera, however, was a new genre: it rejected the conventional lyricism of the more popular operas in that time and instead used orchestration like a fabric, both to support the singers continually and to conjure up an edifice of sound marked by powerful emotions and elusive symbols. 

The plot revolves around a love triangle. In a dark forest, Prince Golaud discovers the highly distraught Mélisande, brings her back to his grandfather, King Arkel’s castle and subsequently marries her. Yet she becomes more and more attached to the prince’s younger half-brother Pelléas, spurring Golaud’s fierce jealously. He goes to great lengths to uncover the truth about the relationship, even forcing his own child by a first marriage, Yniuld, to spy on the couple. Pelléas remorsefully plans to leave Mélisande, but only after confessing his ardent love, which she admits she shares. The two are then surprised by the enraged Prince, who in the last of five Acts, kills his half-brother/rival. The disconsolate Mélisande dies shortly thereafter, having given birth to a child. 

Andrew Murphy (Arkel), Jordanka Milkoa (Geneviève), Toja Brenner (Yniold), Elsa Benoit (Mélisande) © Priska Ketterer
Andrew Murphy (Arkel), Jordanka Milkoa (Geneviève), Toja Brenner (Yniold), Elsa Benoit (Mélisande)
© Priska Ketterer

Here in Basel, Barbora Horáková Joly’s production is a feast of striking interpretation and compelling staging. Water is symbolically underscored throughout by slow-motion video clips (Sarah Derendinger) that are projected as scene-changers and enhancements. We saw the tortured Golaud “submerged” in suspicion and grief, Pelléas and Mélisande in the fragile world that had a dangerous secret and, later, even the slow dissection of a large fish as the lovers’ story became unhinged. 

Eva-Maria van Acker's set was also brilliant. What began as a many-beamed, Mark di Suvero-like sculpture was soon cranked down around itself to make the nave of a parish church, complete with neon cross. While that reminded us of morality and mortality, the beams later morphed into a simple barn façade, alluding to the merits of abstinence and strict discipline. Michael Bauer’s lighting effects also played on the “light” of love in which the couple basked, and contrasted it with the “dark” uncertainties of the couple’s predicament. 

As King Arkel, Andrew Murphy gave a strong performance, his resonate bass bringing the whole house to heel. As his two grandsons, Golaud and Pelléas, Andrew Foster-Williams and tenor Rolf Romei sang with terrific conviction and solid stature, albeit in some instances, Romei’s voice was hard to register above the orchestra. Jordanka Milkova sang commendably as their austere mother Geneviève, and was underscored by a costume seemingly borrowed from The Handmaid’s Tale, complete with Amish bonnet. 

Andrew Foster-Williams (Golaud), Elsa Benoit (Mélisande) and Rolf Romei (Pelléas) © Priska Ketterer
Andrew Foster-Williams (Golaud), Elsa Benoit (Mélisande) and Rolf Romei (Pelléas)
© Priska Ketterer

Elsa Benoit’s voice was clear as a bell as Mélisande, supported all the more by fine acting skills. Hers was an easy transformation from the deranged deer-in-the-headlights victim of Act 1 to a playfully lovable young woman with Pelléas soon after. That change was reversed, however, when she labours over a difficult birth, suffers Golaud’s caustic verbal abuse, then dies of grief in a blood-drenched smock. Act 5 also introduced baritone Domen Križajas the attending doctor, whose sonorous baritone had great substance and would readily suit him for a more leading role. Finally, as Yniold, the 15-year old Toja Brenner held her own with vocal precision despite considerable athletic demands. Forced by her father Golaud to spy on the lovers, she had to climb a tall ladder to offer her “petit-père” evidence of their passion from some eight feet over the stage. 

Under conductor Erik Nielsen’s animated baton, the Sinfonieorchester Basel shone in Debussy’s magical score, which hardly offers respite. (For the viola, for example, the longest rest time in the entire opera lasts a mere forty measures.) As new music director at Theater Basel, Nielsen is responsible for the “musical conscience of the theatre’s artistic direction”, and this new Pelléas and Mélisande attests to his fine capabilities there, for the Basel production is as much a theatrical landmark as it is sublime musical offer.  

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