In 1902, when Pelléas & Mélisande debuted, impressionistic painting had already come to a head. The impressionists had produced hazy canvasses, awash in light and mood. Claude Debussy’s opera was so out of the musical mainstream, more focused on tone and mood than on melody, he was quickly called an impressionistic composer, a label he eschewed. Furthermore Debussy broke with custom by using Maurice Maeterlinck’s play almost word for word; there are no specific arias or duets. Pelléas Is not frequently performed; LA Opera last mounted it in 1995. Often heralded for the music, the story is a tougher sell. The 1995 production was set in Malibu, a device that is hard to imagine in a story that feels related to a mythical past. The current production, originated by the Scottish Opera, more befits the story of a dark and gothic past.
After a moody orchestral beginning the stage is revealed in a creative manipulation of scrims that create the effect of an opening camera lens. The camera lens device is effectively used to delineate the many changes of scene throughout. Prince Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen) bemoans getting lost during a hunting expedition. He comes across a young woman, Mélisande (Sydney Mancasola), asleep in a bed next to a pond. If the last sentence made no sense to you, a bed in the woods next to a pond made no sense to me while watching. She is a delicate young thing, frightened by Golaud whose masculine urge to rush in and rescue is ignited by the encounter. Golaud may not know where he is for certain but he knows who he is and where he is from. Mélisande either knows little beyond her own name, or chooses not to reveal what she does know, where she is from, or how she has ended up there.
King Arkel (Ferruccio Furlanetto), grandfather to Golaud and his younger half-brother Pelléas (Will Liverman), sits in his dark and gloomy castle with their mother, Geneviève (Susan Graham). It is six months later. They have received a letter from Golaud. He has married a woman and they will be on a ship passing by. He anticipates rejection by his grandfather and asks to have Pelléas put a light in the tower window if it is okay for them to come ashore. We learn Golaud is a widower and has a child who is being cared for by his mother. after some anguish on the part of the old king, Pelléas is dispatched to set the light. The couple encounter Pelléas on the path up from the ship to the castle. The opera is not titled ‘Golaud and Mélisande’ so you probably have guessed a good part of what will happen both romantically and between the siblings. Pelléas is young, fun and attractive. Golaud is considerably older, dour until jealousy raises its head and rage gets the upper hand.
Rapunzel-like Mélisande is beautifully played and sung by Sydney Mancasola. Lithe, light, and coquettish she is the only genuine light on the stage. Pelléas is besotted by her and her yards long hair. For phlegmatic Golaud passion is only aroused by jealousy. You can imagine the rest of the story. This is definitely not a case of All’s Well That Ends Well. Scenic Designer Rae Smith’s set effectively conjures up the lonely, dark, and probably dank, castle. If one is willing to accept the music as impressionistic and somewhat abstract in relation to the story, perhaps the ambiguity of interior vs exterior design fits. The black and white photography look adds to the mood.
On a personal level, I prefer the strength and melody of Verdi, or Mozart, or Puccini to the somewhat abstract and moody flow of Pelléas et Mélisande. However the Chandler audience reception to this over three hour work has been positive. Debussy began several other operas, but could never complete those projects. Perhaps he felt that with Pelléas he had gone down this path and others would bear no additional fruit.