To mark the 70th anniversary of the Komische Oper Berlin, Barrie Kosky, the Australian stage director and intendant, has chosen Claude Debussy’s only opera Pelléas et Mélisande as its first première of the season. Kosky is better known for his showy and brash style of productions. For this staging, he has adopted a totally different style. His Pelléas et Mélisande is an introspected chamber piece – what he calls a "clockwork of terror and beauty".

© Monika Rittershaus
© Monika Rittershaus

Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck wrote the story of a love triangle between Mélisande, the mysterious lost girl-princess, Prince Golaud and his younger brother Pelléas in the early 1890s, at a time when Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg were also writing about the inner demons tormenting their outwardly calm and bourgeois characters. Kosky creates a suffocatingly closed space, which his set designer Klaus Grünberg translates into a series of three superimposed dark grey boxes, tapering off into the background and framed by a Baroque-style portal. The very back affords a seating area, where the characters appear and disappear, akin to those in a cuckoo clock. Parallel sliding platforms allow them to enter and exit without moving, caught in their emotional cages. There is no light here, there are no windows to open, as Mélisande so often implores. Invariably, the positions assumed by the protagonists imply being boxed in too small a space, constrained not only physically but psychologically as well, tied up in the emotional knots of their past. The dark costumes of Dinah Ehm add to this sense of doom. Only her designs for Mélisande show the change of status of this character, from lost waif to married lady and princess of some realm.

Even though the story is disguised as a fairy tale, this is a psychoanalytic’s dream setting: a messed-up family constellation if there ever was one. Kosky has his characters confront each other... or rather not. Their body language and positions are reminiscent of the famous German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger’s method to understand the intricacies of relationship and resolution.

Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) © Monika Rittershaus
Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande)
© Monika Rittershaus

Kosky gives each character a very specific body language, which expresses the emotional state of the characters. Pelléas first appears as a shy, introverted big boy, shoulders hunched, feet turned inward, head bent down. Golaud is a sensitive but broken macho character, whom one expects to beat his breast, Tarzan-style. Mélisande, with her child-woman eroticism, manipulates the hostile brothers until the latent violence breaks out. Arkel is a dubious figure, more dirty old man than king of the realm. Yniold, Golaud’s son from a first marriage whom he sends to spy on the lovers, is a nail-biter and brusquely pushes his father away when asked to tell what he has seen. Genèviève is the only one who seems to be grounded in reality, quietly giving help and moral support where possible, such as when she cleans up the bleeding and dying Mélisande from the birth or miscarriage of her child.

The casting – drawn mainly from members of the ensemble – is excellent. Nadja Mchantaf as Mélisande starts out as the innocent girl who quickly develops vocally and dramatically into an intriguing victim, showing ever more layers of her personality. Dominik Köninger’s velvet smooth baritone is beguiling as the poetic loser Pelléas and a foil for the vindictive Golaud of Günter Papendell, ever striving for the truth with a sometimes hysteric baritone, creating vocal tension between a lover’s despair and jealousy and abuse of power. Bass Jens Larsen gives an outwardly tall and imposing King Arkel, his actions and the colour of his voice revealing a dark psyche. A favorite at the Komische Oper, mezzo Nadine Weissmann’s gives her Genèviève precision and beauty. Boy soprano David Wittich, from the Tölzer Knabenchor, is a very convincing Yniold, vivacious and full of personality.

Günter Papendell (Golaud), Dominik Köninger (Pelléas) and Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) © Monika Rittershaus
Günter Papendell (Golaud), Dominik Köninger (Pelléas) and Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande)
© Monika Rittershaus

Canadian Kapellmeister Jordan de Souza, new in this position as of this season, conducted a highly sensitive interpretation of Claude Debussy’s score. He breathed with the singers, not afraid to stretch a pause to its utmost breaking point for dramatic emphasis – the first kiss between Pelléas and Mélisande, where one only hears the lover’s breathing being a good example. He led the orchestra of the Komische Oper in an exceptionally light and lyrical interpretation, letting the impressionism of the late-romantic score flourish.

Altogether, this production of Pelléas et Mélisande delivers a successful interplay of human entanglements within the framework of a high-quality operatic performance.