An ancient castle, a primeval forest, and forbidden love
Somewhere in time
Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Music Center
by Bondo Wyszpolski
It’s always autumn in a Symbolist work of art, often lit by the pale, fading light of dusk. And even if that’s not quite the case every time it’s elevated and exemplified in Claude Debussy’s dreamily sensual opera which he composed after seeing Maurice Maeterlinck’s play of the same name.
“Pelléas et Mélisande” is like one of the outer planets in that it doesn’t circle around very often, and maybe that’s because it lacks the pizzazz of “Carmen” or “La Traviata” where one can go home whistling any one of the famous arias. “Pelléas” doesn’t have arias and there’s nothing you’ll want to hum. Instead, we have music that flows like an atmospheric river. Sure, that’s a term bandied around recently by our meteorologists, but it belongs here as well, a massive moody cloud that drifts over us and carries us along with it.
If we’re seeing the opera onstage then the visuals are very much a part of the experience. In 1991, Long Beach Opera gave us a production that was too abstract, making the best perhaps of inexpensive props, and in 1995, at LA Opera, Peter Sellars reconfigured “Pelléas” and set it in present-day Malibu. Something was lacking both times, despite the supple strains of the music.LA Opera’s current production (through April 16 in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion) originated with Scottish Opera, and that company had the good sense to give us a set design that complements the pacing and overall tone of the music and the singing. In general — and let’s just recall that by their very nature Symbolist works are inherently evasive; they suggest and evoke rather than state — we’re led to assume that “Pelléas” is set in Arthurian times, in a mythical kingdom, and in a Kafkaesque castle that has as many rooms and chambers as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, but is imbued with that miasmic air we find in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which was by the way another work that Debussy set about turning into an opera, completing some but not all of it.
And so what we have, as the curtain goes up, is a set that might have been designed by Anselm Kiefer and Richard Serra, a large austere space the color of iron ore and rusted steel. It seems dilapidated and melancholy and reminds me of the brassy, tarnished-sounding fanfare (as orchestrated by Jean Roger-Ducasse) that Debussy wrote for “King Lear.” The impression is of something ominous and ancient, from another age, like those giant sculptures encountered in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.Somehow these are more tableaux than sets, although it is essentially one fixed vision that, with minimal arrangement, at times depicts the interior and exterior of the castle and also the edge of what has to be a heavily wooded primeval forest. The latter is suggested by a few thin columns that reach to the rafters. While the scenes, and there are 15 of them, vary slightly, less is more because all the right elements are there to begin with.
As for the narrative, “Pelléas et Mélisande” bears some comparison to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” in which there’s a love triangle and eventually the older man angrily lashes out. In this case, while hunting in the forest and becoming lost, Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen) chances upon a maiden weeping by a pool of water. This is the forever mysterious Mélisande (Sydney Mancasola). We see her crouching on a bed, which doesn’t make sense and only serves as a presentiment of the finale when, on the same bed and in the same spot onstage, she lies dying. Instead, she should be shown by the pond that actually is a part of the set, covered or uncovered as needed. I mention this rather adamantly because water plays a key if subliminal part of this opera: We have references to fountains, wells, and a grotto by the sea. And it’s possible that Mélisande may be a kind of nymph or water sprite as found in Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s “Undine.” I mean, you never really know.
It’s also interesting that Mélisande’s first words are “Ne me touchez pas” or don’t touch me, which may remind us of “Noli me tangere” as spoken by Christ to Mary Magdalene. Later, when Golaud is injured, and Mélisande reaches out to assist, he tells her: Don’t touch me. Something else to mull over, but you’ll have to ask Maeterlinck what it all means.So even though Mélisande doesn’t ever reveal anything about herself she consents to go with Golaud and soon they are married. Among the many inhabitants of the castle is old King Arkel (Ferruccio Furlanetto), the grandfather; Geneviève (Susan Graham), the mother of Golaud and Pelléas — and the only character with a common name; Yniod (Kai Edgar), the adolescent son of Golaud from his first marriage; and the unseen present king who lies ill somewhere in the castle, and whom we never see or hear. That’s in addition to the physician (Patrick Blackwell) and all the valets, handmaiden, cooks, gardeners and so on.
Pelléas (Will Liverman) is the half-brother of Golaud, and of course there’s no backstory for him either. When he arrives, at Golaud’s invitation, and meets Mélisande for the first time there’s an immediate but subtle connection that will slowly germinate until it blossoms nearly three hours later in Act Four.
The scenic and costume designer Rae Smith has dressed the performers in what might well be Victorian-era garments, and when we look at Mélisande, always in a long white flowing luminescent gown, we may be reminded of certain paintings by Whistler or Khnopff or even Alma-Tadema. This mostly pertains to the other cast members but Pelléas not so much. Furthermore, as admirable as Liverman’s voice is, a person of color in the key part of Pelléas is visually incongruous and in this so-called era of reckoning conveys one thing, which is, look, we’re all in on inclusivity and diversity. Art, it needs be remembered, is not an equal opportunity employer, meaning also that we don’t fill in the likes of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” with white, Asian, or Hispanic actors for the sake of some politically correct quota.
Anyway, another Symbolist motif has to do with long, beautiful hair, and in this sense Mélisande is another Rapunzel. She lets her tresses tumble down over Pelléas, standing below her window, and he rapturously entangles himself in it. This isn’t quite as gratuitous as it may seem, because a short while later an angry Golaud is all but dragging the poor girl around the stage by her locks.Initially, Golaud dismisses any kind of playfulness between his brother and his wife, but he does become suspicious and finally wrathful after little Yniold, hoisted up so he can peek into Mélisande’s window, tells papa that Pelléas is inside as well. And then, of course, when he catches the two lovers (if indeed that’s what they are) outside the castle walls after curfew, he cuts down Pelléas with one stroke of his sword. In Italian opera, most dying performers are able to get off one last or maybe two final arias, but Pelléas doesn’t even manage a squeak.
Although Mélisande didn’t receive a scratch, she too is fatally wounded and the deathbed scene slowly closes out the opera. Ketelsen shows us a desperate and frantic Golaud as he beseeches Mélisande to tell him the truth about her relation with Pelléas. Arkel tells him to cool it, to let the girl’s soul leave her body in peace. She fades, slowly, and so does the opera.It’s a quiet, sublime work, with gorgeous moments, although a little long for some attendees; so if one momentarily dozes off, especially after a day at the office and another on the freeway, that’s forgivable. What’s not forgivable is missing this rare opportunity to see it. James Conlon has given this masterpiece a new life once again along with director Leah Hausman and her creative partners.
Pelléas et Mélisande is onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave, downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Sunday, April 2, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday, April 5, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, April 8, at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, April 13, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, April 16, at 2 p.m. Masks are no longer required, but encouraged. Tickets, as low as $15 and as high as $284, available at the box office, by phone at (213) 972-8001, or online at LAOpera.org. ER