Soprano Barbara Hannigan first appears as a bride in the new Aix production of Pelléas et Mélisande.
The new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at Festival d’Aix, by the innovative British theater director Katie Mitchell, is as bizarre and beautiful as a Twin Peaks episode. In this extraordinary staging at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, the constantly shifting rooms and worlds take the audience on a journey. A curtain call for the vast stage crew–something I’ve never seen before—was justly deserved. In the pit: no less than London’s Philharmonia Orchestra led by its principal conductor and artistic advisor since 2008, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Earlier this year, you may have been lucky enough to catch Salonen’s minimally-staged version of the score at Disney Hall with the L.A. Philharmonic. As that performance signaled, with the loss of Pierre Boulez last year, Salonen may be without peer today in this repertoire. Surprisingly, he tells me, it’s easier to conduct the fully staged version in part because there’s so much rehearsal time, affording plenty of opportunities to get to know each singer’s proclivities and communication styles, in essence, what they need from him. For this Aix production, Salonen imported from L.A. his wonderful Pélleas, Stéphane Degout, an alum of the Festival d’Aix’s summer academy training program, and also his thrillingly unpredictable Golaud, French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri. But the center of attention, the singer/actress/athlete we can’t take our eyes off, is contemporary music’s soprano of the moment (and no doubt many moments to come), Barbara Hannigan in her role debut.
Mitchell’s surreal production takes off from a comment by Debussy’s librettist, symbolist playwright and poet Maurice Maeterlinck: “I played in a dream near traps of destiny … Who all of a sudden woke me up?”
Before the music begins, Mélisande enters the stage in a wedding dress and falls asleep on a bed. The opera is her dream. We have no idea if she’s just married, about to be married, or simply trying on the dress (it looks sensational!)
Yet Mitchell’s production is intensely physical. She more than hints that Golaud is abusing Mélisande, his much younger wife, who inexorably seems to be falling in love with her half brother-in-law, Pélleas. In one surreal dining room scene, with his weird family members looking on, the jealous Golaud grabs Mélisande’s long strawberry blond hair and thrashes her right and left as she kneels on the floor in front of him, facing away. Hannigan tells me she gets bruises every night, and only recently have Naouri’s thumbprints disappeared from her arm. But the Nova Scotia-born soprano, also a rising conducting star, knew she was in for a rigorous work-out, both physically and emotionally. After a rehearsal of the thrashing scene, Mitchell emailed notes to the cast requesting Naouri bring to the scene “more Reservoir Dogs, please.”
But there’s trust there. Hannigan has worked with Katie Mitchell as much as any other director, the two previously collaborating on George Benjamin’s acclaimed opera Written on Skin, premiered here in Aix in 2012. Hannigan has also frequently worked with Salonen dating back some 15 years to when she unveiled her signature “party piece”, György Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre. (She now conducts and sings this sensual tour-de-force. If you haven’t yet caught a look at it on YouTube you have a big treat in store for you.)
Touches of David Lynch-like surrealism as Barbara Hannigan’s Melisande walks on the dinner table, shunning advances from both her husband, Golaud, played by Laurent Naouri, and her elderly father-in-law, sung by Franz Josef Selig.
Hannigan’s Mélisande, she confesses over tea at an outdoor Aix café, was in part inspired by videos she’s recently been watching of Princess Diana. Hannigan mentions Diana’s innate shyness, how she tended to peer out from under her feathered bangs. And like Mélisande, Diana came into a dark house, one with lots of dysfunctional family history. She liked to spend time outside. There was a haunted quality, certainly a foreboding sense she had attached herself to the wrong man.
Hannigan herself is nothing if not a risk-taker. She tells me playing Mélisande, especially in Mitchell’s production, is like “turning your skin inside out.” Hannigan exposes her body, too, but she says, that’s no big deal. She’s used to it. (It can’t hurt that at 45, she looks maybe 25, and bears more than a passing resemblance to actress Amy Adams.) An Olympic trained athlete, who danced en pointe (in toe shoes) for the first hour or so of a recent production of Lulu, Hannigan believes above all in engaging the audience by remaining spontaneous, open to the live experience. She sees the striving for perfectionism as a kind of ruse, an excuse for not taking risks. For artists, “there has to be a combination of discipline, liberation, and generosity,” she tells me. “With those things you can form a community, work with each other, flourish and grow. Sometimes you’ll fall down. But then we help each other up.” And that’s the direction of Hannigan’s career, these days, too. Straight up.