Ruth Berghaus and her Pelléas at the Berlin Staatsoper

One does sometimes encounter the revival of a production nearly thirty years after it was first presented, particularly if it is of a very popular opera in an international house and used primarily as a vehicle for jet-setting star singers. It is rare to encounter such a revival the object of which is to resuscitate a staging which was, in its time innovative, shedding new light on a work. Such is the case with Ruth Berghaus’s production of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Berlin Staatsoper which serves as a testimony not only to the work of a great stage director but also to a style of music theatre which has largely disappeared from our opera houses.

Berghaus approached a work fundamentally through symbolism. The characters are not portrayed naturalistically; they do not live in a real world of a medieval castle, let alone any contemporary equivalent. They communicate the truth of their predominantly gloomy existence through stylised movement, only occasionally enlivened by childlike play with objects – a ball, a ring. They wear costumes which do not relate to any particular period and which, in the style of Oskar Schlemmer, serve to constrain their individuality. They do not behave as “reasonable” people: locked into an unfeeling environment, they internalise their emotions and express themselves through elusive often inconsequential language.

The brilliant, abstract decor designed by Hartmut Meyer perfectly complements the disposition and movements devised by Berghaus for the characters. The enclosed environment of the castle is represented by huge blocks which slant diagonally upwards from the stage. The colours are sombre purple and bluish-green; all is dark save only for a large, bright yellow staircase, open to the sky, and symbolising release from oppression. This is where Mélisande allows her chevelure to envelop Pelléas (in this production, removing her wig), and where at the end she rises in short laboured steps to reach death.

All of this marries so well with Debussy’s ethereal, opaque music. It was here conveyed, under Maxime Pascal’s assured direction, with commendable lucidity and attention to detail by the Berlin Staatskapelle. The pervasive veiled quality of the score came across in the restraint exercised by the instrumentalists, making the impact of the fervent climaxes all the greater.

Marianne Crebassa was the near-perfect Mélisande. Vocally expressive with a nuanced declamation of the text, she was dramatically an untamed animal, spontaneous in movement but also sensual. In contrast Roland Villazon, while convincingly using his rich full-toned tenor to characterise the passions of Pelléas, seemed physically to be ill at ease in this production, perhaps because in the Berghaus conception the role was envisaged to be more youthful and carefree than he was comfortable with. Luca Pisaroni was suitably impassioned as Golaud and at times brutal but, because his alienation from the young couple’s behaviour was easily comprehended, he did not lose the audience’s sympathy. The veteran Wolfgang Schöne was Arkel and if his bass was at times too thin, this can be forgiven when a singer is approaching the age of eighty. Katharina Kammerloher made much of Geneviève’s brief appearances and an unnamed soloist of the Tölzer Knabenchor was a remarkable Yniold.

But let me return to where I started. What this evening demonstrated above all was the value of not losing sight of masterly approaches to staging from the past. We do this with ballet; why not opera?