Music by Claude Debussy, libretto adapted from the play by Maurice Maeterlinck
New production by Maria Costa
Barbora Horáková Joly, director
Karl-Heinz Steffans, conductor
Golaud: Paul Gay
Mélisande: Ingeborg Gillebo
Pelléas: Edward Nelson
Arkel: Anders Lorentzson
Genevieve: Randi Stene
Yniold: Aksel Rykkvin
Back in 1987 I went to my first production of Debussy’s masterpiece, Pelléas et Mélisande. It was one of those performances that remains with you for the rest of your life: the Met orchestra positively glowed under James Levine, José van Dam menaced as Goloud, and of course, Frederica von Stade’s grace and beauty were beyond compare.
My companion for that performance, my dear friend Barb, was not so impressed. Oh yes: the singing and the orchestra were magnificent, the music beautiful. “But nothing happened!” she declared.
|Susanna Hurrell (who replaced an injured Ingeborg Gillebo)|
and Edward Nelson
Photo c. Erik Berg
There was a pause. “Well?”
“Goloud gets jealous and kills Pelléas, and then she dies. Of…something.”
Barb shot me an exasperated look and said, “And it took THREE HOURS.”
Barb was a Verdi and Puccini sort of operagoer. She loved to quote a commentator who once had described Puccini’s music as “silver macaroni, exquisitely tossed.” [I tried to look up that quote, by the way, but all I found were recipes for mac ‘n cheese.] So for Barb, Debussy’s only opera was a bit of a stretch: adapted from the Symbolist play by Maeterlinck, the opera is low on outward action and vocal display, and high in psychological complexities and musical subtleties.
Premiered in 1902, smack dab between two of Puccini’s greatest hits, Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904), Pelléas is simultaneously indebted (however grudgingly) to Wagner on the one hand, and also the first opera truly borne of the 20th century on the other. While Puccini was continuing the tradition of grand Italian opera, Debussy was looking ahead to what opera might become, a form less about outward actions and twists of plot and more about the human psyche; a form where the external world was merely an illusion, a reflection of the internal world. And lastly, a form in which the voice was merely a vehicle to explore that inner world, the goal being understanding, empathy, insight, pathos…not the vocal acrobatics at the center of the Italian opera circus. In an 1890 letter to Ernest Guiraud Debussy wrote about this new, and thoroughly modern, concept of what opera should be: "The ideal would be two associated dreams [the text and the music]. No time, no place. No big scenes [...] Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome [...] My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes. No discussion or arguments between the characters, whom I see as being at the mercy of life or destiny."
|Susanna Hurrell, Anders Lorentzen, Edward Nelson|
Photo c. Erik Berg
Now more than a century since the opera’s premiere, it would seem that opera audiences still struggle to come to terms with this enigmatic masterpiece. Last week in Oslo, where I happened to be presenting at a conference, I had the pleasure of attending the opera’s latest production (and its first-ever in Norway, something that is itself quite revealing). As I made my way to my seat, I overheard an English patron mutter to his wife, “Well it’s fine to hear this once, but once is enough for me!” It would seem that “silver macaroni, exquisitely tossed” is still what most patrons seek when they come to the opera.
Photo c. Erik Berg
Fortunately, the vast majority of Oslo’s enthusiastic audience didn’t share that sentiment: the National Opera & Ballet’s magnificent house was nearly full, and other than a few tubercular patrons the audience sat in rapt attention to this gripping production. So let’s get to that, for there is much to admire.
In a work that is so much about the interior world of the characters, expressing that internal world through the staging is everything. The set, lighting, and blocking all must serve to open up the characters so that we might glimpse a piece of their reality. Too often, productions of this opera stop at simply evoking the general mood of the piece (dark, glowering). Or, as they did at the Met, they go with the “fairy tale” aspect of the work, set in a place that doesn’t exist and a time out of reckoning. (I’ll never forget the stunning lace drapes that replaced the Met’s famed golden curtain for their Pelléas. It was a gorgeous evocation of “a dream…no time…no place.”) In Oslo, however, Maria Costa’s new production was designed from start to finish to serve as a symbolic portrait of the tortured interior world of the characters. As became very clear, very quickly, every detail of the staging was an expression of what lies beneath the surface, the suffocating confinement of a prison that is more psychological than physical.
The set, consisting of white walls and ceilings with harsh lighting, evoked a hospital setting: the heavy castle of the original is now an asylum, the characters are patients (or inmates). The doctor, who normally doesn’t appear until the final scene, is constantly in the background, silently observing. Mélisande’s prior trauma, never identified, is made explicit by her torn, blood-stained clothing and a catatonic stare, while the young boy Yniold is played as a deeply disturbed child in his own right, dismembering the dolls he carries and shooting his bow and arrow at whomever happens to be in his line of sight. The most striking use of the hospital metaphor was the two grotto scenes – first in the sea cave where Mélisande ventures at night, ostensibly to find her wedding ring, and later when Goloud takes Pelléas deep into the castle vaults for a not-too-subtle warning about the direction he’s headed with Mélisande. These locations are cast as the asylum’s infirmary, with rows of harsh beds and patients in various stages of illness (or madness). The message is clear: beneath this rich castle and beautiful gardens is a sickness, the kingdom rotten at its very core. The idea that these characters are trapped – either by fate or by their own tangled dysfunctions – is further made evident by the walls and ceiling of the set, which sometimes converge to literally box in the characters. In this production, everyone – not just Mélisande – is a prisoner in a fortress built on sickness and decay.
One other aspect of the opera I hadn’t fully appreciated earlier is the role of Genevieve, the mother of Goloud and Pélleas (though by two different men). Most productions simply present her as the resigned enabler of the family’s various dramas, but in this production she was portrayed far more starkly: an alcoholic depressive, perhaps a picture of where Mélisande is headed in another 20 years. Related to this portrait of a woman brought down by the men around her is the exploitation of Mélisande, made explicit and sexual in a number of arresting scenes. Rather than just passively eluding to Mélisande as Goloud’s possession, this production adds a chilling layer of meaning to the libretto: while uttering empty words of comfort and admiration, Goloud, and later Arkel, grope and penetrate her. Though shocking, these scenes were not used for shock value: they made clear the degree to which Mélisande is nothing but an object to these men, something to be used by them for their own needs. Their words of admiration or comfort are only meant to ease their own consciences, even as they continue to abuse her. This aspect of the production made me wonder if this opera, in addition to being the first modern opera, was perhaps the first feminist opera as well.
Which brings me to the treatment of the relationship that is the title of the work: that of Pelléas and Mélisande. It seems to me that if one is going to amp up Mélisande’s exploitation by her husband and father-in-law, as was certainly done here, one then has to take a stand on whether or not Pelléas is himself just another instrument of exploitation: is he merely a handsomer and gentler version of his brother, or is his character fundamentally different? Maeterlinck’s text is, predictably, not very helpful in answering this question. It’s obvious that Pelléas is still an innocent: he is constantly patronized by his brother and the King – they practically pat him on the head while saying things like, “You’re still young. Someday you’ll understand.” – and yet he seems to hold no resentment of their condescension. At the same time, he strikes me as oblivious to what’s going on around him: he asks the King if he can go away to visit his sick friend – even while his father is dying in the next room; he doesn’t really seem to get that he’s treading on dangerous ground with his brother until things have progressed far past the point of no return; and perhaps most revealingly, though he praises Mélisande for her many physical attributes (her hair, her eyes), he doesn’t really indicate that he has any true empathy or understanding of her abiding sadness. So is Pelléas another male oppressor, or just clueless? There certainly is ample evidence to argue that he’s the former – just a prettier version of Goloud, unaware of how his actions are impacting the object of his alleged love, indifferent to her suffering, and destined to someday become as dark and cynical as his older brother.
But I don’t think that’s the correct reading of this character. I think the answer to this question can best be found in Mélisande, and in her music. For it is only through Pelléas that we see her come alive, expressing emotions and passion that are otherwise completely inert. This contrast is made all the more clear in this production: when she is being physically exploited by Goloud or Arkel, her body freezes, her post-traumatic stare returns. She has completely shut herself off from the world in order to bear what’s happening, lying inert and lifeless until the violation is over. But with Pelléas she is animated, expressive, her previously catatonic eyes sparkling with life. The music certainly supports this interpretation: the only moments in the opera that would approach anything like “silver macaroni exquisitely tossed” are the scenes with the two lovers, especially their final parting moments before Pelléas is murdered: as Goloud stalks them, they finally declare their love for each other – sealing their fate and completely, and consciously, submitting to it as well. The music soars ecstatically, the lovers kiss, and Goloud moves in for the kill.
In the end, Pelléas remains more of an enigma to me than Mélisande. Perhaps he is a symbol of those rare innocents whose fate always seems to be that they are either destroyed by the world or taken from it prematurely. In a world dominated by darkness (a constant presence in the opera, almost as if it’s a character in its own right), perhaps Pelléas is the one source of light, doomed to be extinguished.
No opera review is complete without talking about the singers, and in this case I have nothing but praise. Paul Gay was a brooding presence as Goloud, his rage only barely concealed (when it’s concealed at all). He sang with power and expression, switching his color on a dime while alternating between anger, regret, and supposed tenderness. Anders Lorentzson sometimes pushed his voice too hard, but his portrayal of Arkel powerfully conveyed an old man resigned to his helplessness in the face of fate. Boy soprano Aksel Rykkvin sang magnificently as Yniold (be on the lookout for where this lad’s career takes him once his voice changes!), and Randi Stene perfectly captured Genevieve’s emotional fatigue, her voice dark and morose with resignation. I found her presence on stage to be far more powerful and compelling than the norm for a relatively minor character – which in turn helped me appreciate Genevieve’s importance in this drama as an illustration of what this place does to its women. Just as Arkel shows us where Goloud is headed, Genevieve is the future shadow of Mélisande.
And lastly, of course, are the title roles. Ingeborg Gillebo was a mesmerizing presence as Mélisande, her voice conveying the proper mix of innocence and fear, her grief held tightly under wraps, just barely submerged beneath the surface, her elegant features shattered by eyes “that never shut.” Mélisande’s sadness resides in an outward beauty that stands in stark relief to an internal world of sadness and trauma. That’s not easy to convey to a vast and darkened auditorium, but Gillebo pulled it off magnificently.
And Edward Nelson was basically flawless as Pelléas, a role which is definitely not a run-of-the-mill baritone part. Not only should Pelléas be the embodiment of youthful, innocent beauty, the role requires a singer of extraordinary vocal range and flexibility. Debussy writes in such a high register that it could almost be sung by a tenor! (In fact, in the production I saw at the Met back in the 80’s, it was sung by a tenor: Douglas Ahlstedt.) Nelson delivered on all counts: a regular on the Barihunks website (and for good reason), he radiated youthful charisma on stage and ease of color and diction throughout his vocal range. He was an absolute treat in this, his European debut, and I hope I have the opportunity to hear him again soon.
I have but one gripe with this otherwise wonderful production – but unfortunately it’s a rather significant one. To be blunt, they totally botched the ending. What I’d hoped would happen, as Mélisande slips away into death, is that those oppressive walls and ceiling would gently, quietly lift away, finally releasing her from her prison. After the extensive use of those moving walls to symbolically illustrate the characters’ state, how could they do anything but be lifted away in the end? Such a gesture is absolutely suggested by both the nature of her passing (so quiet as to almost escape notice by the others in the room) and by the music: delicate, resolved, at peace. Instead, we see a video projection of Mélisande’s newborn baby on the back wall, while Yniold stands over the cradle with a camcorder in his hand, filming. While the intent was clearly to underscore Arkel’s statement that this newborn girl will have to carry on in Mélisande’s place – a line that is more or less tossed away but is pretty chilling when you think about it – the gesture was completely wrong for the moment. For one, projections had not been used at any other point in the production, so to introduce one into the final seconds of the piece is guaranteed to jar the audience during the most delicate of moments. Also, though props and costumes were suggestive of the 20th century, there was a sufficient mix of styles as to not suggest any particular moment in time – precisely the “no time, no place” that Debussy stated as being his ideal. Given that, the expressly present-day feel of Yniold’s camcorder was likewise out of place. Lastly, after all the symbolism and subtleties of the production, something this literal was far too on the nose, and completely out of sync with the sensibilities of everything else in the show. “Details” such as these are often underestimated, even by the finest theatrical directors, and the more delicate the moment the more such details end up being like taking a sledge hammer to piece of silk embroidery. I couldn’t escape the sense that the director wasn’t sure how to handle these last moments, and so she simply punted …an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise glorious evening.
|Photo c. Erik Berg|
In the end, what is it about this opera that is so beguiling? The work is filled with music of almost unbearable beauty, and simultaneously, a sadness as deep as the well in Mélisande’s garden. I think the juxtaposition of beauty and pain is at the heart of so much great art because it strikes right to the heart of what it means to be human. We see ourselves in Mélisande, perhaps not trapped as literally as she is, but trapped nonetheless in a life where death and loss are unavoidable, and where our own fragile state seems so completely inadequate to face whatever Destiny sends our way. We long for a Pelléas, but such purity is not meant for this world; in the end we end up like Arkel: unable to see the light, and resigned to our end. And when we weep, we don’t weep for Pelléas or Mélisande, we weep for ourselves.
Ultimately I don’t accept the notion that our fate is so completely out of our hands, or that we’re destined to darkness. Nonetheless, so much of our world still boils down to great beauty living side by side with immutable pain – with the latter being unavoidable. What Debussy reminds us, in this his crowning achievement, is that in the face of that pain we have beauty to salve it, if only for a little while.