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Camilla Tilling [Photo courtesy of Harrison Parrott]
29 Feb 2016

Extraordinary Pelléas et Mélisande

With its City of Light presentations, honoring Paris and French inspired music, the Los Angeles Philharmonic offered its public an extraordinary concert performance of a unique opera — Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy.

Extraordinary Pelléas et Mélisande

Estelle Gilson

Camilla Tilling [Photo courtesy of Harrison Parrott]


How unique was this performance? Well, if you missed this Pelléas et Mélisande, you missed the only production of the work in a major American house in the past two years. And none is projected here through 2018.

Pelléas et Mélisande is based on a play of the same name by Belgian born, Maurice Maeterlinck. It was first performed in 1893. Maeterlinck, a prolific and popular writer in his day, was a symbolist, as were many of France's greatest poets of the age including Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud. These symbolist poets, who believed that music was the most direct route to the emotions, strove to write musical verse- and in fact their poetry inspired not only Debussy, but composers - Gounod, Ravel, Fauré and others - to create a new and enchanting age of French art songs, known as Mélodie What does symbolism in an opera look like?

Well, an outline of the story will help. Of course, there will be a love triangle. But the first thing to note in this opera is that first person we see and hear in the opening scene is a man, who, like Dante, in the first lines of the Inferno, suddenly realizes that smack in the middle of his life, he is lost in dark woods. This is Prince Golaud, who immediately hears weeping and encounters another lost person - Mélisande, a beautiful maiden with cascading golden hair. She has just dropped a jeweled crown, which an unknown “he” had given her, into a nearby pond. Still weeping, she tells Golaud that everyone in the distant land she came from has hurt her in some way. She refuses his offer to retrieve the crown, by threatening to leap into the water herself, if he does so. Golaud, who is widowed, eventually marries Melisande. The pair return to Golaud's homeland, Allemonde, where Mélisande, who has still not told Golaud anything about her past, will meet his mother, Geneviève, his blind grandfather King Arkel, his little son, Yniold and his younger half brother, Pelléas. Allemonde is a land of despair, poverty and famine. The castle is surrounded by dark gardens and endless forests, though the sea is visible from a nearby coast. Within the castle itself, Pelléas' father lies seriously ill. He will recover, but the mysterious young woman with cascading golden tresses will not bring hoped for joy and light to the castle. Its gloom will devour her.

Symbolism? Whereas Golaud and the young lovers, Pelléas and Mélisande suffer through experiences that every other operatic love triangle suffers: love, lost love, unrequited love, hate, rage, fear, betrayal - what makes this trio unique is that none of them seems to know where they are, who they are, what they want. They do not understand themselves, and certainly not each other, but seem suspended in some floating space. However, the chracters in this opera have some strangely interrelated characteristics. Whereas King Arkel is blind, Mélisande's eyes are never closed unless she's sleeping. In an early encounter Pelléas takes Mélisande to the once miraculous Fountain of the Blind, no longer valued because Arkel has lost his sight. The ability and inability “to see” in all its meanings is of primary concern to both Maeterlinck and Debussy. The word yeux, eyes is spoken nineteen times in this libretto, aveugle, blind, nine times.

And we come across strangely related interactions. In a rendezvous with Pelléas, Mélisande drops the gold wedding ring Golaud had given her into a deep well. At that very moment Golaud is thrown from his horse and injured.

Maeterlinck had an oft quoted credo “Art always works by detour and never acts directly. “ Apparently, the musical detour to Mélisande, a woman with no known background, proved puzzling to Debussy, who wrote to a friend of the difficulty of creating music from “nothingness”. Fortunately, he succeeded. Perhaps he had learned of a scholar's view of Maeterlinck's work, which asserts that Mélisande had been one of Bluebeard's wives, who escaped with a detested crown.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has been daring in its attempts to present opera and other important vocal works in its theatrically-challenged space. Whereas the Mozart/Daponte operas sometimes seemed shoehorned into inadequate space, this Pelléas et Mélisande with a larger cast than Cosi fan tutte, was enhanced by the thoughtful restraints of its semi- staged concert presentation - which allowed the orchestra - the musical heart and voice of the opera - to carry Debussy's sensual score to the audience's heart.

The production, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and directed by David Edwards, was previously presented in London's Royal Festival Hall in 2014 with the same superb baritone leads. High baritone, Stéphane Degout was an ardent Pelléas and bass baritone, Laurent Naouri ranged superbly through Golaud's towering rages and sorrowful regrets. Camilla Trilling was a clear voiced, vulnerable Mélisande, soprano Chloé Briot, a captivating Yniold. Well known veteran artists, Dame Felicity Palmer and Sir Willard White, sang Geneviève and Arkel, respectively.

Director David Edwards added static nude blindfolded figures at the rear of Disney Hall to reflect the often voiced concerns about blindness, as well as to symbolize the devastation of the land. They enhanced both the depth of the stage and depth of despair in Allemonde and its castle.

But it was Eka-Pekka Salonen's command of the orchestra that illuminated the brilliance and mystery of this opera in new ways. It seemed as though Salonen was making a point of keeping an almost audible beat going beneath the restless wash of orchestral colors. Salonen, who has spoken of his love for this score, added a narrator to both productions, who read text drawn from Maeterlinck's writing. I'm not sure the words were helpful, but actress, Kate Burton's narration acted as a kind of frame, that helped set the tale unfolding behind her, in a land of make believe.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information:

Pelléas: Stephan Degout; Mélisande: Camilla Tilling; Golaud: Laurent Naouri; Arkel: Willard White; Geneviève: Felicity Palmer; Yniold: Chloé Briot; Physician: Nicholas Brownlee; Narrator: Kate Burton; Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen; Director: David Edwards; Lighting designer: Colin Grenfell.

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