There’s no doubt that Mélisande endeavours to escape past troubles when she first appears in Barrie Kosky’s production of Debussy’s opera, yet Nadja Mchantaf is no reticent, wispy maiden. Every vocal and physical gesture – always precise and penetrating – displays an atypically forthright quest for vitality, something that Arkel’s chauvinistic world does not readily offer. Günter Papendell as Golaud begins sympathetically and with glimmers of warmth, but becomes irrevocably unhinged when Mélisande reveals that she has lost her wedding ring. Pelléas’ emotional capacity is a latent force in Dominik Köninger’s gentle giant interpretation. Clothed in velvet, in rich shades of indigo and violet (costumes: Dinah Ehm), Pelléas curbs his impulse to leave the barren castle and flowers in Mélisande’s sensuousness. The consummate trio of singer-actors at the core of this production made it an unforgettable highlight of this year’s Komische Oper Festival.

<i>Pelléas et Mélisande</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Pelléas et Mélisande
© Monika Rittershaus

The realm of Allemonde takes the form of a relentlessly geometric set, whose pie-slice stage narrows into a small rear opening with a bench (set: Klaus Grünberg). The compressed focal point makes some matters seem larger than life and especially cramped; nothing feels natural. Debussy’s music, remarkable for its ebb and flow and inner energy, finds partial expressive complement in the stage’s three independently revolving segments. Characters sometimes glide in and out of view without moving, the wheels of fate most brutal when Mélisande’s dead body contorts as it’s shuffled downstage by the ever-shifting terrain; Arkel and his cohort sit unflinching, blindly looking into the distance. Those who struggle most in this unyielding environment are given musical voice. Similar in size to the Opéra Comique, where the opera premiered, the intimate Komische Oper enables a direct and vivid encounter with Debussy’s score. Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza (installed this season as the company’s main conductor) teases out individual instrumental lines to powerful effect, and encourages impactful emotional swells. 

<i>Pelléas et Mélisande</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Pelléas et Mélisande
© Monika Rittershaus

Kosky cuts no slack to Arkel and Geneviève, performed most admirably by Jens Larsen and Nadine Weissmann. The former is not frail but an out-an-out predator, the latter a heartless servant. In the last act, Geneviève mechanically wipes the blood of childbirth from Mélisande’s legs, in full view of a small crowd of suited men. One aches at this point to revisit Mélisande’s first flamboyant emotional appeal to Pelléas, or her full-hearted response to his open declaration of love. The naked truth has long been known, however, as Kosky’s sleep-talking, nightmare-like interpretation of the subterranean scene involving the half-brothers makes clear. Mélisande doesn’t stand a chance in Allemonde, but her silent screams as the drama ends deserve to be heard.

*****