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Love, exultation and death: treading a thin line

Prom 5: ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ (Glyndebourne opera, LPO/Ticciati) and Prom 6: Gershwin’s ‘American in Paris’ and Messiaen’s ‘Turangalîla Symphony’(BBCSO/Oramo)

The French spirit (or spirits) was hovering over the roof of Royal Albert Hall for two of the Proms that marked the beginning of the marathon that is Proms-2018: Claude Debussy’s and Olivier Messiaen’s grand masterpieces had George Gershwin’s ‘American in Paris’ joyfully sandwiched between them. Moreover, Messiaen’s and Debussy’s works were linked by the same Wagnerian ‘Tristan and Isolde’ theme and legend that was an inspiration, a parallel, a baseline for their own respective creations. Love and death are close in both works, and both explore the limits of human emotional responses to love: melancholy, anger, jealousy, mystic and unexplained longing and death for Debussy, but also jubilation, comfort and calm, escape into the unknown, connection with natural forces of the world where death and game are very near that is love for Messiaen.

Prom 5. ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ (Glyndebourne opera, LPO/Ticciati)

On 17th July 2018 Glyndebourne opera brought one of its productions in a concert version to the Royal Albert Hall, an action that counts its tradition back to the 1960s and 1970s when Glyndebourne Festival Opera was one of the pioneers of concert opera versions in BBC Proms. All the arrangements with musicians (London Philharmonic Orchestra), soloists and chorus (Glyndebourne Chorus) of the home setting were transferred by Glyndebourne to the Royal Albert Hall. The concert version was staged on the podium before the orchestra by Sinéad O’Neille who tried to keep Stefan Herheim’s direction as intact as possible. It was not very difficult, as in the original production Herheim stripped the stage of any possible castles and their interiors, as well as of natural landscapes, while focusing intently on relationships between the characters or rather their misinterpretations of each other’s words and misguided reactions to them. Such attempt was very Maeterlinckian by design. However, a strong attachment to a particular time (the end of 19th century) was revealed in the costumes by Philipp Fürhofer which were more bourgeois and even philistine than Debussy’s opera and Maeterlinck’s text allowed for.

Arkel (Brindley Sherratt), Pelléas (John Chest) and Genevieve (Karen Cargill). Credits: Chris Christodoulou

Debussy’s only opera has no other libretto than the text of Maeterlinck’s play and it seems that Belgian playwright and his imagery was exactly what Debussy was looking for when trying to escape from operatic conventions and create a score for orchestras and singers that will make them learn their skills anew and exist on stage alone and with each other very differently from what was usual and expected in the end of the 19th century. Interestingly enough, the feeling of novelty stands true even for a young singer Christina Gansch who performed the role of Mélisande in Glyndebourne production and in the Prom, as she speaks about the role being different from anything else she has done. She mentions difficulties in psychological application of her own life experience to the role as it is so beyond ‘normal’ and in way is very ephemeric, a projection of dreams and wishes of others, almost a male romantic desire impersonated, always fluctuating between Golaud’s and Pelléas’s visions of their beloved.

Mélisande (Christina Gansch), Golaud (Christopher Purvis) and Pelléas (John Chest). Credits: Chris Christodoulou

Debussy’s opera is unique in reinventing the operatic language as such, with its becoming conversational, full of pauses and silences, and very close to the intent of Maeterlinckian drama as the reader might imagine it. In this, Debussy has a huge influence, for example, on George Benjamin with his ‘Written on Skin’ and ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’, and both composers create a very unique and a surprisingly similar (considering more than 100 years of distance between their work) effect for the listener. We begin to be submerged in our own dreams and visions, as silences, pauses and lack of pressure from finished musical phrases (as there are none) creates the opportunity for us to get immersed in our own flows of subconscious thoughts and fantasies, to re-create our own kindgoms, castles, fountains, wells, winds, chambers, etc. Our imagination works independently of what we see or might see, we become co-creators of Debussy, we allow our hidden longings to exist and believe in their right to do so, and this exercise of soul work could not be compared to any other – and I felt going through my own love and death journey during the evening of Prom 5. Here the minimalist direction and what was left of it in a concert version actually helped, rather than was a disadvantage.

Mélisande (Christina Gansch) and Pelléas (John Chest). Credits: Chris Christodoulou

There were some explicite elements in Herheim’s directorial decisions: for instance, physical presence of Golaud in scenes between two young lovers, and vice versa, presence of murdered Pelléas in the final scene between old husband and his wife worked very well in showing how Mélisande was less a woman but rather a substance of ‘ewig weiblige’ to which both men were drawn and were united in doing so. Other elements, like presence of the cross instead of the window from where the heroine’s hair fell, or sudden silences (where they froze like statues of puppets) of domestic stuff and other characters when certain dialogues happened, as well as presence of bourgeois dinner tables, beds and cutlery somehow did not help to unfurl the musical imagery, but rather stiffened it. Some reactions of Pelléas and Mélisande when seeing each other or trying to conceal their mutual interest were also over-directed in naturalistic and therefore slightly ridiculous style, as opera and text revel and function best in understatements.

Golaud (Christopher Purvis) and Yniold (Chloé Briot). Credits: Chris Christodoulou

The best moments of the evening were the long moments between two young protagonists where their love passes through different stages and is revealed in all the subtlety of the feeling scared of itself: a scene near the well in Act 2, then a scene outside the cave in the end of the same act, and a scene near the well again in Act 4. These scenes with John Chest playing a blonde, costumed (with a touch of a philistine gentry good looks – a slight contradiction again) Pelléas and Christina Gansch being an amazing, always mellow and fragile Mélisande, who was also a touch too plump and full of youthful physicality and beauty, were delicious visually and musically. All of them filled with poetry, purety, discovery and final abandon one can only experience by living it through during the night of the opera and through realizing the fragility of love that like a name, like air, like a fleeting moment defies definition but flows anew and always differently like a river stream. A renowned Handelian expert, a baritone Christopher Purves also shined as Golaud and brought many insights and nuances into his character. He showed Golaud’s excesses of jealousy (an incredible scene with his son Yniold, sung by Chloé Briot, where the weight of suspicion is compared to pure and naïve emotions of the boy and of young lovers), but also his ability to restrain himself and to feel tenderness and remorse. An excellent, haunting evening where Robin Ticciati carefully led the LPO and his soloists through the labirinths and silences (however counter-intutitive for a conductor it might seem) of Maeterlinckian score, always having the whole of the opera in mind and never pressurizing the music into being something it was not meant to be.

Prom 6. ‘American in Paris’ and ‘Turangalîla Symphony’(BBCSO/Oramo)

Prom 6 on 18th July 2018 had a seemingly incompatible programming, with Gershwin’s work that has by now become part of our consciousness with its various famous tunes going along with Messiaen’s giant of a symphony, Turangalîla, that is much harder to absorb, let alone to keep its bouquet of melodic ideas in memory, but which has been mentioned by many composers to be influential on their lives and work. Sakari Oramo stepped to the podium again after a ravishing opening of the Proms on 13th July 2018. And interestingly, during the evening Oramo showcased a similar skill that he revealed in leading the BBCSO through Holst’s ‘The Planets’ – bringing out a unique character of each part of the work while firmly having the vision of its unity in mind.

He started with a lighter exercise, though, giving additional work to a brass section (especially trumpets and trombones), in Gershwin’s jazzy and always changing ‘An American in Paris’ (1928), which feels as though it comprizes of multiple elements like a jigsaw puzzle, almost each of them being recognizable to a modern listener. The theme of the work was to describe fleeting impressions an American might get in Paris, and indeed we feel we are always on the move, and, moreover, Gershwin’s Paris, apart from boasting its metropolitan sounds, seems to be triumphant in its jazz and blues, almost as it were New Orleans. Criticized by contemporaries – may be for being too approachable, too readily a mass hit – it has become a permanent favourite with the audiences forthwhile. Prom 6 brought this work to the listeners in a new critical edition by Mark Clague, where, for instance, original composer’s tunings of car horn passages were restored. The work seemed to bring some additional light to the Royal Festival Hall – one was almost ready to fly away and dance with the music.

Sakari Oramo conducting. Credits: Justin Sutcliffe.

But the music where one indeed could fly away to lands unknown and so desirable was the next work – Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Turangalîla Symphony’, for which some additional stage preparations were made during the interval. Apart from the orchestra, vibraphone and celeste were given their positions in the left corner before the conductor, while a grand piano that has an oustanding part in the score, was positioned also to the left, but closer to the centre. Ondes martenot, an electronic instrument that can produce theremin-like sounds through operating its wire with a ring on an index finger, while also having a four-octave keyboard producing electronic vibrato sounds. Three amplifiers were positioned in front of the instrument – all according to its original inventor, Maurice Martenot, design. Cynthia Millar, who had performed this very part in Messiaen’s grandiose work for five times during the history of the Proms, was positioned at the instrument, while Angela Hewitt, another brave and powerful virtuoso, was playing the solo piano part (initially intended by the composer for his wife Yvonne Loriod).

Turangalîla Symphony, apart from similar Tristan and Isolde story that seems to underpin, has another common feature with Debussy’s opera that audiences heard the night before – it calls for a strong imagination on the part of the listener, one cannot experience it by merely listening, one is physically drawn to it and one has to shape the worlds of love, game, jubilation, timelessness from one’s own memory, dreams, fantasy, expectations – otherwise the symphony would not work in the scope it is designed to. Messiaen draws on a Sanskrit word in naming his work, and the word comprises play (creation, destruction, death) and time (flow, space, rhythm, life, oblivion), and thus again creates the ambivalence needed to broaden our minds for perception of this orchestral work that seems as guttural and primordial as it is poetic, mystic and subliminal.

It is divided into 10 sections with five and five of them bearing on two themes – love (amour) and turangalîla that is always more sombre, inscrutable and menacing even, but still bearing the seeds of jubilation in them. In ‘love’ movements (chants d’amour 1 and 2, jardin du sommeil d’amour, développement d’amour) one can imagine one’s own paradise of love with images influenced by poetry, literature, art, our own romantic longings. Here we would here glockenspiel and birdsong, interactions of strings and ondes martinot, the amplitude of tenderness ranging from piccolo to bassoons, with the masculine ‘statue’ theme also intricately joining in, and the piano with its cadenzas and interwoven silences sometimes solely bearing the weight of love emotions poured in by Messiaen.

Turangalîla movements were more unpredictable, conflicted, fluid, but also more cosmic in their grandeur and in their ability to bring forth some planets and spaces of sound and images unbeknown to us before. Here Oramo, his soloists and BBCSO excelled in ‘Joie du sand des étoiles’ movement, but aso in the introduction and final of the symphony, where two of its themes, feminine and masculine, united. It is hard to put down the impression the symphony leaves – it is so 3D in its scope but also so bravely innovative in its ideas and the combination of instruments – piano and ondes always coming in at unexpected moments and infiltrating into the orchestral sound with a view of dominating it for brief, beautiful moments, as comets coming down from the space. Oramo, although never quite seeing his soloists positioned behind his back, was always allowing them to intervene, to shine in cadenzas (for piano) and to surprise our ears with its whistles, whirls, waves and glissandos (for ondes). This symphony was like an ocean or a sky or indeed a cosmos one was never tired of – and one experience of listening to it, one knew, brought out only as much as it could, while other journeys through its soundscapes still awaited. Music became semantically unexplored, always containing a mystery by the sheer scope of its rhythmic and textural inventiveness. Once again, as during Prom 1, the magnificent setting of Royal Albert Hall helped our imaginations to soar with the sounds of Messiaen’s work, imagining ourselves as either human beings in Dali’s paintings, or lovers in Chagall’s world, or may be even as cubism-inverted objects of Picasso’s desire.

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