By Rodney Punt
LOS ANGELES — Opera cognoscenti revere Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, but their enthusiasm has not always translated to wider audience appeal. Tutored on the primary dramatic colors of Italian opera or the emphatic emotions of its German counterpart, one might puzzle over the subtle, static goings-on of Pelléas, in which the listener is compelled to eavesdrop on the subconscious ramblings of lovers unaware they are in love.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic and its conductor laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen, have forged a special relationship with the work over the past two decades, learning by trial and error how to best convey its delicate essence. Their first venture was a controversial 1995 staging by Peter Sellars with the LA Opera. The second had an extended suite from the work playing a supporting role in the 2004 Tristan Project.
The latest was the finale in Salonen’s multi-city, multi-concert “City of Light” survey of French music that began in London in 2014 and included performances in Stockholm, Paris, and Chicago. The semi-staged concert version of Pelléas at Disney Hall on Feb. 19 and 21 proved not only a triumphant culmination of past efforts, but a complete validation of the work’s oft-questioned dramatic viability. The listeners at Disney Hall were in rapture.
The work’s setting is a mythical, medieval neverland named Allemonde, which in French could suggest either Germany or anywhere in the world. A product of fin-de-siècle France, it ruminates for 2 1/2 hours with just a bit of time in conflict and lots in suppressed emotions. Its murky plot — set by the composer word for word with only a few cuts from the 1893 play by Symbolist author Maurice Maeterlinck — has simplistic dialogue obscuring deeper meanings and dense vocal lines that lack character. Notable too is Debussy’s use of the spoken word in a hushed confession of love. Much is made of contrasting states of awareness or being: light and dark, blind and sighted, wet and dry, in union or in solitude.
For the first three of five acts, the two eponymous lovers are unable to articulate what they feel. Only in the final two acts do things come to a head musically and dramatically as their growing but chaste love clashes with a husband’s jealousy. Well-meaning bystanders urge warnings but are helpless to protect them. Passivity is omnipresent.
With somnambulistic non-actions on stage, Debussy’s orchestra does the heavy dramatic lifting, but that is hardly the term for the astonishingly delicate instrumental magic the composer conjures. His orchestra simmers and smolders on an inexorably flowing, glinting journey of no return, engulfing all in its sway.
Debussy’s innovative score owes a musical debt to the spiritual worlds of Parsifal and the love-triangled Tristan, yet the composer resisted the seductive influence of Wagner’s style in his search for another musical path. This he fashioned from the Far East, notably Japan and Indonesia, which various Parisian expositions at the end of the 19th century had exposed to him. The East’s pentatonic scales and gamelan colorations — along with unusual instrumental combinations and the use of parallel triads, and unorthodox seventh and ninth chords — produced exotic, hot-house sounds that gave the composer an original musical voice perfectly suited to the play. (And one that would later influence composers like Stravinsky and Ravel.)
Debussy’s ethereal, indeterminate music, with Maeterlinck’s touch-me-not drama of the mind, has challenged stage directors for generations since the work’s 1902 Paris premiere. The 1995 Sellars staging for LA Opera in the Chandler Pavilion tried to break the obscurantist mold by tailoring the drama to a modern setting of homeless lovers on a beachside in Malibu. Alas, the intriguing concept had them groping on a dim stage with fluorescent lights inconveniently shining in the audience’s eyes. The neo-Brechtian alienation, whether or not intended, obliterated the delicate drama and compromised a commendable first outing for Salonen and the LA Phil in the less-than-ideal acoustics of the cavernous hall. (Sellars may have taken that cautionary tale to heart in a recent, reportedly successful German outing with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. See CVNA review here.)
A big positive in the second LA Pelléas was the newly opened Disney Hall, with its clear acoustics, where the excerpted suite from the work was well received as part of the 2004 Tristan Project. But this was minus the dramatic impact of a complete performance and merely whetted the appetite for more.
Which may be why this third time around, Salonen and company decided that Pelléas, as their “City of Light” centerpiece, might best be presented in a concert format with just enough stage business to give the visual drama its due, while reserving the work’s main dramatic impact for the ear. Colin Grenfell’s indirect color effects subtly exploited to advantage the intertwining nooks and crannies of Frank Gehry’s wood interiors in hues of blue, red, and amber.
It was Salonen himself who suggested the insertion of a narrator between the five acts, using Maeterlink’s own words to provide a more concrete guidance to the action, while allowing a few moments’ rest for the orchestra. Kate Burton’s recitation was clear and the text helpful.
Director David Edwards’ modest but sensitive staging more resembled an enhanced oratorio than an opera, and that was fine. The bench seats immediately behind the orchestra had been sequestered from the audience for a static display of fifteen stylized chalk-white mannequins, each with a blindfold suggesting the blindness of the lovers and possibly the blind jealousy of Mélisande’s older, insecure, ultimately violent husband, Golaud. Below the mannequins sat the evening’s soloists, ready on cue to walk slowly in front of the orchestra for their deliveries. None of the cast members touched one another. When interacting, one character would suggest the action as another mimed receiving it.
The protagonists forged an ideally strong and idiomatic team. In the tenor role of Pelléas, brightly hued French baritone Stéphane Degout was ardor itself. Camilla Tilling’s clear soprano conveyed both the naiveté of Mélisande and a kind of fatal purity that chimed with Debussy’s unchanging musical motif at her every entrance. Laurent Naouri’s authentic, nasal-inflected French baritone was the evening’s standout performance as Golaud. Sir Willard White’s family patriarch, Arkel, exuded embracing warmth and wisdom. (He had portrayed Golaud in the original 1995 Los Angeles Pelléas.)
Veteran mezzo Felicity Palmer’s sympathetic and resonant Geneviève softened the tragedy, along with White’s Arkel, even as the two were powerless to stop it. The role of the boy Yniold can pass in some productions as a humorous turn, as he is instructed by his father Golaud to report on a potential love scene. In this instance, soprano Chloé Briot properly portrayed the stress of an innocent made into an accomplice coping with a father’s frantic fury.
Nicholas Brownlee’s Physician reinforced the role of bystander to the tragedy. The Master Chorale directed by Grant Gershon made the most of its brief appearance in the back balcony, reinforcing the work’s ethereal element.
The LA Philharmonic, liberated from the confines of an opera pit and under the touch of master colorist Salonen, was the center of the action on Disney’s stage, projecting every instrumental color to its full potential, every rhythm in its intended crisp or muted detail. The instrumental expressivity, at its exquisite and subtle best, suggested the slow build-up to love’s attraction, its surrender, and its final devastation amid imagined forests, grottos, fountains, and chambers.
The performance succeeded at every level, revealing in its unusual format an equally valid way to present Pelléas et Mélisande. It confirmed the persistence of artistic integrity and managerial risk-taking in the pursuit of ideal circumstances for a challenging work. The performance will stand as one of the greatest ever in Disney Hall and a milestone in the history of this unique work of musical art.
Rodney Punt publishes LA Opus, an on-line journal of music and theater based in Los Angeles. His concert reviews can also be found on The Huffington Post and San Francisco Classical Voice. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts, followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.