In Claus Guth's haunting new production of Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande," the characters move as if in a trance between two worlds — both of them unrelentingly bleak.
The French composer's only completed opera, starring baritone Christian Gerhaher and soprano Christiane Karg in the title roles, was seen Thursday night in the seventh of eight performances by the Frankfurt Opera this fall. The final one is Saturday night.
The story, adapted by Maurice Maeterlinck from his own symbolist play, sounds straightforward when reduced to its elements: Golaud, grandson of King Arkel, meets a mysterious, much younger woman, marries her and brings her home to his family's castle. She and his half-brother, Pelleas, fall in love, and Golaud's suspicions that they are having an affair (apparently unfounded) lead him to murder his rival. Melisande dies after giving birth to Golaud's child.
But in Maeterlinck's world nothing is quite what it seems, and as the characters wander through the story, their words, feelings and motivations are often impossible to pin down. Debussy captures this atmosphere of dreamy uncertainty and shifting reality with a score whose chromaticism continually eludes the musical resolution of traditional key structure.
Guth, a German director known for his radical reinterpretations of operatic texts, has conceived the action as split between the concrete world of the castle and an abstract world beyond its walls.
Set designer Christian Schmidt turns Castle Allemonde into a modern two-story mansion, tastefully furnished but cold and charmless. Indoor scenes alternate with those that take place outdoors, represented as darkest night on a bare stage, with only the singers and shadowy figures faintly visible in the background, along with a silvery glitter that intermittently falls from the sky.
Inside the castle, we're often viewing as many as four rooms at once, with characters drifting through the dwelling like zombies. Sometimes the castle revolves slowly on a turntable, opening up even more space and leading the characters into the dark void outside.
This allows Guth to achieve some brilliant effects, as in the chilling scene in which Golaud forces his young son, Yniold, to spy on his wife and brother. Typically this scene is played at the base of a tower with Melisande's window visible up high. But Guth starts the action with Golaud and his son in the dining room, while Melisande is alone in her bedroom above them, gazing out her window.
As Golaud becomes insistent that Yniold tell him what he knows, Pelleas enters the house and goes upstairs to join Melisande. Then the set revolves to take us outdoors, and all that's left of the lovers is their shadow visible through the window. It's this image that Yniold reports seeing when Golaud lifts him up on his shoulders — and the fact that we see it too and have watched it taking shape lends it an extra measure of creepiness and makes us feel almost like voyeurs.
Guth perhaps gives way to a touch of sentimentality when, after Melisande dies, her spirit leaves the house and walks outside through a suddenly sun-drenched open door. But the revolving set soon shows her plunged back into darkness, just like those shadowy figures we have seen earlier. One of them emerges toward her and it's the ghost of Pelleas — but the two don't embrace or even touch, just pass each other slowly, his arm extended toward her as the opera ends.
Gerhaher, a noted lieder singer, has just added Pelleas to his short list of operatic roles, and it's a terrific fit. Diffident and bespectacled at the start, he removes his glasses and pours out his love for Melisande in his final scene with achingly beautiful tone. Karg, petite and stealing puffs from a cigarette whenever she can, is a provocative Melisande, and her plaintive, slightly tremulous soprano adds to her enigmatic air.
Bass-baritone Paul Gay makes the tormented Golaud a figure both terrifying and pitiable, and he sings with commanding vehemence, though a few high notes test his upper range. Contralto Hilary Summers brings rich tone and incisive delivery to the role of his mother, Genevieve, while bass Alfred Reiter is a sonorous Arkel (who kisses Melisande with a lot more than grandfatherly affection). The orchestra, under conductor Friedemann Layer, plays the long, difficult score with delicacy and depth of feeling.