‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ As Resonant Verismo: Dark, Bleak, Beautiful

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Sydney Mancasola as Mélisande and Will Liverman as Pelléas in Debussy’s opera at Los Angeles Opera (Photos by Craig T. Mathew)

LOS ANGELES — Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande has the reputation of being a connoisseur’s opera — and therefore a problem for a general opera audience. There are no arias to hum or whistle on the way out of the theater, no stirring choruses, few hints of the histories and thoughts of the characters. It’s an invitation to bathe in endless waves of gorgeous Debussy orchestrations and immerse oneself in whole-tone and pentatonic scales. It encourages quiet contemplation, a suspension of time and place.

In other words, it isn’t your typical night at the opera.

The last and only time that Los Angeles Opera had previously staged Pelléas was back in 1995 — and that was in the hands of Peter Sellars, who controversially staged it as a family drama on the Malibu beachfront, which, unintentionally or not, evoked the then-concurrent O.J. Simpson case. (Full disclosure: I wrote the program notes for that production, not knowing what it would actually look like!) Upon the urging of music director James Conlon, for whom Pelléas is a cause worth fighting for, LA Opera scheduled a production for May 2020, which, of course, got canceled due to the pandemic. But that Pelléas — following the company’s originally COVID-canceled The Marriage Of Figaro earlier in 2023 — was resurrected at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on March 25.

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Ferruccio Furlanetto as Arkel and Susan Graham as Geneviève

There were several walkouts midway through the Sellars production, which one could plausibly attribute more to the stage director’s antics than to Debussy. Yet on this occasion, there were once again conspicuously fewer patrons than before in the orchestra-level seats after the sole intermission. This time, I don’t think the production — an import from Scottish Opera under the considerably less-radical direction of David McVicar — was the cause for the exodus. Neither was the performance blameworthy; it was first rate in every respect.

Pelléas was a one-off in its time; there had been nothing quite like it before, and it had no real successors, although its influence was wide. Debussy’s nearly verbatim setting of the Maurice Maeterlinck stage play led Richard Strauss, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and Alban Berg to seek inspiration in other existing plays. I don’t know for sure whether Béla Bartók ever saw Pelléas, but he must have been familiar with it, for the brooding four bass notes that open his 1911 opera Bluebeard’s Castle are a mostly inverted version of the brooding four bass notes that open Pelléas — albeit in a different key.

It was clear from the opening notes that the LA Opera Orchestra was going to be the star of this production. There was no ovation for Conlon as he crept almost unnoticed to his place in the pit in near-total darkness, all the better for the opening music to cast its deep, luxurious spell from silence. Throughout the evening, Conlon highlighted all kinds of things, like the magical effects in the strings in an Act II interlude, striking streaks of high emotion during Arkel’s monologue in Act IV, and the basses sizzling ominously in the climactic scene later on while keeping everything in a unified flow. The orchestra sounded fabulously rich from a prime spot for acoustics — Row L, left center — in the notoriously patchy Pavilion, delivering plenty of detail at a comfortable volume that hardly ever overwhelmed the singers. The missing ovation for Conlon was more than made up for after intermission — long and loudly.

McVicar’s concept of a one-size-fits-all set of what resembled a barren warehouse with tall, rusty, decaying walls looked out of place in the first scene, which takes place deep in a forest. Eventually, bare tree stalks appeared from act to act, gradually becoming more abundant. What made the all-purpose walls vibrate with occasional, sparingly applied color was the lighting — originally designed in Scotland by Paule Constable and redone by Pablo Santiago in Los Angeles.

Will Liverman as Pelléas and Sydney Mancasola as Mélisande.

Yet the overall feeling of the setting, despite the expansive size of the stage, was one of gradual claustrophobia, perhaps symbolic of fate closing in upon Pelléas and Mélisande as they declare their mutual love too late in the game to be enjoyed before tragedy strikes in the form of cuckolded Golaud. Moreover, even as Debussy resisted most of the trends of his time, the verismo waves rushing through opera around the turn of the 20th century reached Pelléas as well in the love-triangle conflict of Act IV, and the score, as amplified by Conlon’s impassioned conducting, supports that aspect. Since time and place are never even hinted at in the opera, updating the costumes to Debussy’s time was not only OK in itself, but it also connected the production to the period where verismo was in the driver’s seat for a lot of operas.

Interestingly — and I’m sure, coincidentally — the Sellars Pelléas had a black Golaud and a white Pelléas, while the 2023 cast had just the opposite, but since the characters are merely half-brothers, these black/white pairings are plausible. Will Liverman’s Pelléas straddled the vocal divide of the role well, with the overall timbre of a baritone and enough upper clout for the tenor range. Though his acting was fairly stolid, that felt right when underplaying the decisive words “Je t’aime” in Act IV, thus avoiding unnecessary histrionics. Kyle Ketelsen’s Golaud evolved from a compassionate baritone in Act I to rising paranoia and then genuine menace. Ferruccio Furlanetto was a picture-perfect Arkel — a wise, composed old sage with a strong bass voice lightly touched with age. Bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell was the sepulchral-voiced Doctor.

Kyle Ketelsen, center, as Golaud, prepares to kill Pelléas (Will Liverman), who is hopelessly in love with Mélisande (Sydney Mancasola).

Sydney Mancasola displayed a beautiful soprano, ideal for Mélisande in Act I, which became more forward and even a little bit overwrought in the middle acts. Putting the star mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the brief role of Geneviève was luxury casting at its most opulent; her Act I scenes with Furlanetto created delectable duets between two stage veterans who understand each other. A very skilled and brave boy soprano, Kai Edgar, played Yniold, whose mistreatment by Golaud provoked one audience member to be overheard saying at intermission, “That poor boy. That is not OK!”

It’s hard to say whether Pelléas went over with this audience the way it was meant to. There were some laughs where there shouldn’t have been (this opera lacks any sense of humor). Those who were bored or exhausted by the pace of Acts I, II, and III — with only one intermission — might have been advised to stick around for the more conventional melodramatics of Act IV. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that this production gave a considerably more authentic impression of this supremely atmospheric opera than 1995’s O.J. Special.