Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "The Outsiders" (on Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande)

the outsiders

by Douglas Messerli

Claude Debussy (composer, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck) Pelléas et Mélisande / the performance I saw as a concert version with partial staging by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conduction / the performance Howard Fox and I attended was at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday, February 21, 2016

Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande is work primarily about outsiders. The work begins with the sad Mélisande sitting near a stream where her beautiful crown can be seen in the waters below. Is she an unhappy princess, rejecting her kingdom, or a queen purposely abandoning her marriage? We never know, and she remains a mystery throughout, an outsider not only without a home but, apparently, without a family.

     Prince Golaud, who comes upon her, has been hunting, and is now lost in the strange kingdom of Allemonde. When he suggests he might be able to retrieve the crown, Mélisande refuses his help, obviously disinterested in returning to her former position, whatever it may have consisted of. We also suspect that she has been sexually abused by the fact that she refuses to allow Golaud to touch her.* But we learn nothing more, only that she is willing to follow Golaud to his own country, where his grandfather, Arkel, reigns as King.
       But even there, Golaud is still somewhat of an outsider, having refused to marry the woman his grandfather had chosen for him. Since he has now married Mélisande, he must beg forgiveness from his grandfather for his disobedience and ask for their acceptance of his new bride.
       Arkel, who is the only being in the work who seems to know who and what he is, being centered in the world in which lives, readily grants his forgiveness, since Golaud is a widower, and his elder grand-child is permitted to return.
       Moreover, as we soon discover, Golaud’s mother, Geneviéve is now married to another man, who is seriously ill. The younger son, Pelléas, is his offspring, and Golaud’s beloved half-brother.

      But even Pelléas, although living in the castle, clearly feels at odds in its dark and foreboding home, wherein his grandfather lies in illness. His youth, finally, keeps him from a leadership position, not to mention that the castle also contains Golaud’s son, Ynoid, sired by his first wife. Is it any wonder, accordingly, that there is a deep tension between all those who now live within the castle walls?
      By the end of the opera, we discover that all have been deeply affected by the unhappiness that has been inflicted upon family members, which we see played out in various journeys throughout the countryside, and into the dangerous vaults that lie beneath the castle itself. Even a trip to a nearby fountain, said once to heal the blind, but whose waters now are apparently ineffective, presents certain dangers, and becomes the place of the final destruction of the Pelléas and the beautiful Mélisande.
      In this world of outsiders, each individual seeks some other being to cling to, Golaud depending upon Mélisande to make his life meaningful, while Mélisande becomes attracted, quite naturally, to his younger brother who eventually returns her love. It hardly matters than the relationship between the young Mélisande and her brother-in-law may be chaste and that their love is closer to that of children than to a real passion that is at the center of so many operatic works. No one, in this frightening cold and dark world, can accept anything outside their own personal needs. 
      Indeed, Mélisande’s loss of her ring in the Fountain of the Blind, even though it arises from the simple childish action of her tossing it into the air to see it shine in the sun, parallels the first scene of the opera where she has lost her crown. Was that too a rash action that meant far more that it might seem? Certainly the fact that she is spending that day with Pelléas, at least symbolically, suggests that he has usurped Golaud’s place in her heart. And, at the very moment that she loses the ring, Golaud’s horse throws him, seriously injuring him. The fact that, after her ring is discovered to be missing, the two are commanded by Golaud to undergo a dangerous night-time voyage to a cave where she claims to have lost the ring, only brings the couple closer together. 
       In short, Golaud’s increasing jealousy and ultimate stabbing of his brother, seems almost predetermined. In order to survive he must find a way to maintain the status quo of his life, and any impediment to that must be sent away or destroyed, as Pelléas had already come to perceive in his final announcement of his determination to leave. 
        But in many senses, this is no one’s home except Arkel’s, who wisely determines that even Golaud and Mélisande’s newborn child must similarly be sent away so that she can live her own life.
       The Los Angeles Philharmonic concert production of this opera, directed by Esa-Pekka Salonen, revealed all the shimmering beauty of Debussy’s remarkable score; but in David Edwards’ somewhat wooden direction, which featured a whole ghostlike chorus of badly sculptured manikins, and which required each singer to move into position for their arias from a long staircase leading to the back of the orchestra, merely reiterated the disjunctive lives of the characters within the tale.

      All the major singers, Stéphane Degout as Pelléas, Laurent Naouri as Golaud, Fecicity Palmer as Geneviéve, Camilla Trilling as Mélisande, and, particularly Willard White as Arkell credibly performed their roles—although from the high balcony seats where Howard and I sat it was often difficult to completely hear their voices over the resonant sounds of the orchestra, despite the hall’s wonderful acoustics. The addition of narrative passages, pulled from various writing of Maurice Maeterlinck, although well read by Kate Burton, seemed intrusive and often even further blurred the already vague story.
      It is clear that in the slow-moving and minimal action of the opera that a full performance of the work is, as always, a difficult thing to achieve. Much like Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the music tells the story far more than the singers’ acts or movements, which consists primarily of holding hands or sharing gentle kisses. Accordingly, it is perhaps just as effective to present a “concert version” such as this one. But it might have been better if the characters were seated in from of the orchestra and simply stood for their moments of performance that trotting them up and down the Walt Disney Concert stage.
      This was, nonetheless, a memorable afternoon in the revelation of the music and meaning of this innovative turn-of-the-century opera.

*Maeterlinck himself wrote in Ariane et Barbe-bleue that Mélisande was one of Bluebeard’s wives, who had escaped from his castle.

Los Angeles, February 22, 2016

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