To celebrate the centenary of Claude Debussy’s death this year, Opera Vlaanderen brings to the stage a new production of Debussy’s only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.
The set design and visual concept are created by Marina Abramović, at her second collaboration with choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet after Boléro at Opéra national de Paris in 2013. The costumes are produced by Iris van Herpen, the Dutch artist and fashion designer who combines traditional couture with digital technologies to produce both organic and technological sculptural creations. Video artist Marco Brambilla produced the video concept and Urs Schönebaum the lighting.
At the heart of Pelléas et Mélisande are latent desires, obscure fears and a deep relationship to the metaphysical universe. Opposing naturalism and realism in the arts, in line with Wagner‘s achievements, Claude Debussy composed this innovative opera at the very end of the nineteenth century. The plot concerns the love triangle of Mélisande, Golaud, and his half-brother Pelléas and is based on the dramatic symbolist work of the same name by writer Maurice Maeterlinck.
Inspired by the many references to “seeing” and “being seen”, and by the recurrent theme of light, both earthly—a lighthouse, a lamp—, and cosmic—the sun, the moon, the stars—, Cherkaoui, Jalet, and Abramović set the entire opera in a black, spherical space.
This contradictory space is both the inside of an eye—the claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere of Allemonde’s castle—where the iris is an opening through which to look at the world, and a planetarium, as an eye turned towards the universe and the cosmic infinity.
Marina Abramović has a fascination of her own for both planetariums and for ‘the gaze’, which was the central theme in her famous performance The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art of New York in 2010.
A higher consciousness
As a setting for Allemonde, Abramović created an original world of her own. “In looking at older stagings of Pelléas et Mélisande, I felt so connected,” says Abramović. “It is in a sense so static that we wanted to delve into that unconscious, mysterious aspect of the work. That is how we arrived at a world that feels almost like science fiction, in which the only objects are the crystals.”
Abramović has a special connection to crystals. She travelled to mines in Brazil in order to find places “of power” and experience for herself how crystals, which she sees as sources of energy, are extracted from the earth. A research that she considers as necessary because “our consciousness has become completely detached from our energy sources. I want to reproduce this consciousness,” she says.
This connection to a higher consciousness becomes central in Pelléas et Mélisande: within the spherical space, there are seven huge crystals that stand or hang and can assume various configurations. “The crystals are connected to my own work,” says Abramović. “You can find crystals in any galaxy. They are the perfect elements to embody the enigmatic world of Allemonde, the world in which Mélisande arrives as an alien. But as ‘transitory objects’ they also connect to the access to the characters’ inner world.”
Abramović began working with crystals in 1989 after she had walked the Great Wall of China [‘The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk‘, Abramović, Ulay, 1988]. “I soon understood the importance of crystals and how they affect the spirit,” she says. “Crystals are millions if not billions of years old and possess tremendous power. They are constantly used in both traditional medicine and contemporary technology.”
“With even the smallest crystal, you hold in your hand complete knowledge of our planet. Crystals have the potential to condense light and energy. For me, they are capsules in which time and memories are stored. Through crystals, it is as if we are able to communicate with other civilisations. The crystals are like a bridge between the human and universal.”
Life as a cycle
“Life is like a cycle. Both life and death are a new beginning”, says Abramović. “This idea is strongly present in Pelléas et Mélisande. We, therefore, allow the opera to end the way it began.”
“As a person,” says director and choreographer Damien Jalet, “Golaud seeks connection with something finite, something defined” while “Mélisande, on the other hand, is practically the embodiment of an infinite force, she looks outwards. The starry sky often literally appears as a symbol of this. She and Pelléas find joy in the thought of the universal. They know that they are a part of it. They are detached from societal norms and all those limited ideas that are part of a societal system, and which I consider to be very destructive.”
Pelléas et Mélisande will be on stage at Opera Vlaanderen from February 2 to 13 in Antwerp and from February 23 to March 4 in Ghent.
A co-production with Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, the Opéra national du Rhin Strasbourg, Göteborgs Operan and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.