Historic productions of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande feature a sylph-like heroine and a magical setting. Anyone expecting those from Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new Zurich production, however, will be disappointed. Here, Mélisande enters Act I not as an abused fairy princess, but as a monstrously fearful, down-and-out railroad child, who is violently averse to any human touch.

Kyle Ketelsen (Golaud) © Toni Suter
Kyle Ketelsen (Golaud)
© Toni Suter

Composed after Maurice Maeterlinck’s eponymous play, Debussy’s opera tells the tragic story of a love triangle: two noble half-brothers, Golaud and Pelléas, and the enigmatic Mélisande, who comes into their lives unexpectedly after a tremendous and undisclosed personal calamity. She marries Golaud, but he is soon convinced of her illicit union with his brother, and his jealous rage ends in Pélleas’ murder. A broken Mélisande dies after childbirth.

In an effort to given the early 20th-century work biting and current relevance, Tcherniakov chose to leave the fairy kingdom behind and focus on the complex issues around the heroine’s post-traumatic syndrome. Golaud is cast as a hands-on psychotherapist, who studies widescreen video clips to study patients’ cognitive behaviours. Yet when the first libretto translation appeared above the stage: “Golaud has fallen in love with his patient. He takes her home to continue her treatment there”, a hefty snicker resounded in the house.

Corinne Winters (Mélisande) and Kyle Ketelsen (Golaud) © Toni Suter
Corinne Winters (Mélisande) and Kyle Ketelsen (Golaud)
© Toni Suter
“Art always works by detour and never acts directly,” could have been Debussy’s credo here. For while the opera’s unusually quiet subtleties may allow for easier take-up, the words sung, according to one critic, “might not mean what you think they mean”. Given that anomaly and the score’s understatement, making real sense of this symbolist opera is tough, even in the most traditional staging. But Tcherniakov added a further disconnect: his staging entirely disregards the scripted forest, water well, seaside grotto. Instead, the action takes place in a single, monumental space: a huge living/dining room with two niches, which Gleb Filshtinsky’s ingenious lighting defines as “separate”. By forfeiting all the surroundings and visuals mentioned in the libretto, the suspension of disbelief bar is pushed up further. While we hear about the presence of a tower, beggars, sheep and shepherds, there are none on stage; indeed, the characters sing of things perceived we others cannot see.

Given that dimension, though, the opera’s dramatic power no longer has to hang entirely on the fragile strains of Debussy’s intricate orchestration. The manifestations of trauma are the meat here, and Corinne Winters (Mélisande) played that for all it was worth. She has married Golaud while a zombie in a hoodie in Act I, and her treatment seems to have been successful when we reach Act II, some six months later. When the lights came up, Mélisande was happily sprawled out on a generous chaise longue, twiddling her toes and grinning. She eventually even traded her casual black sweats for a rather unsightly Egyptian caftan; which was incongruous, but hardly as strange as the unkempt hair that made her more of a homeless person than a woman who might win hearts. Nevertheless, win hearts she did. Even old Arkel, (played by Brindley Sherratt) forced an unsavory kiss upon her.

Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas) and Corinne Winters (Mélisande) © Toni Suter
Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas) and Corinne Winters (Mélisande)
© Toni Suter

Kyle Ketelsen, the brutally jealous Golaud, sang with compelling strength throughout, handsomely managing the complications of vocals even while having to beat his wife. As Pelléas, Jacques Imbrailo had the densest French to master, but bettered the hopeless lover in the last two acts, where his fine voice seemed more rounded and confident. As Mélisande, Corinne Winters’ spectrum of play from tortured animal to young lady of the noble house – and back – felt a little farfetched. What was disappointing, though, was that after the backward sprawls to let down Mélisande's “hair” in Act III − where the word “hair” enjoys no fewer than 15 mentions − I found little visceral connection between the two lovers; I sorely missed the luxuriant image so central to the eroticism of the original, and hoped the greater magnetism that such intimacy had every reason to reveal. After all, the whole story hangs on that passion.

As Yniold, the young Damien Göritz is to be commended for singing a role that was demanding both musically and in stage time. For better dramatic effect, however, any aimless traipsing he did around the stage would better have been curbed.

Conductor Alain Altinoglu seemed to effortlessly work the colours and articulation of the score that, unusually, doesn’t contain a single aria. Rather, in this sequence of 15 poetic scenes in five acts − lightly and intricately connected by short musical interludes − he directed the Philharmonia Zürich with great insight and integrity. Like an artist facing a canvas, he seemed almost mesmerized by the work at hand. And not surprisingly, the players under his baton beautifully underscored the score’s many contrasts and extraordinary power, which Pierre Boulez often lauded as one of great “potency and violence”.