Upon Watching Pelléas et Mélisande

Maurice MaeterlinckI watched a DVD recording of a 1992 production of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande, the Welsh National Opera orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez and staged by Peter Stein. I thoroughly enjoyed this opera from a variety of angles. In my mind it satisfied the promises which are so very difficult to keep in opera.

The story of the opera comes from a Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Rather than  adapting the prose of the play into a verse libretto, Debussy set much of the prose to music, 
cutting from the plot wherever he needed, upon Maeterlinck’s permission. As a Symbolist work there is more emphasis placed upon the symbolic meaning behind certain objects, themes, or ideas than upon a realistic portrayal of human behavior. The story uses many images from popular folklore, such as the unspecified, fantasy world, the Prince losing his way in a forest, the beautiful woman with the long hair, and miracles happening around wells. Themes of water, light and darkness, eyes, hair (with Biblical references to the Song of Solomon and the death of Absolom), adulthood and childhood, fear, and innocence mix together. In addition the plot and text emphasizes the importance of these things by asides which lack strong narrative purpose, and dialogue where the topic of conversation shifts or questions go unanswered.

This type of play works very well in the opera genre. The characters, the themes, the plot, and, in effect, everything is an archetype. According to what I’ve read of the Second German Romantics and George MacDonald, these archetypes live in that fragile state of twilit dreaming. It’s about having your eyes and ears open to the subtleties of these symbols. It’s about fluidity. Debussy is the obvious composer to capture such a work. His music, one moment major, the next minor, the next something completely different, is suggestive and off-hand enough to keep this world alive and not crush it. It speaks to the Symbolist’s desire to combine multiple senses. Also, this opera may have saved my assessment of French language opera forever. (I can understand a lot more than I thought I could!)

Alison Hagley as Mélisande was excellent. She was able to be simultaneously frightened, innocent, confused, mischievous, beautiful, and enigmatic. Her subtlety never lacked passion or slipped into blandness or burlesque. I feel as though that is very difficult to pull off. Neill Archer as Pélleas did likewise. He was childish, but not stupid, petulant, or two-faced. He was a symbol, a complex symbol that changed with the ripples of the water, but still a symbol.

It was very interesting to watch this opera after Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. By contrast with the explicit and tortuously tragic version of love in that story, this opera only ever talks of brother/sister kisses or kisses on the forehead or hand. Nothing is explicit. Even at the end, Golaud (the struggling “adult” in a child’s world) doesn’t know if any consummation of adultery really happened. Somehow though, I found the confession of love in Act 4 was one of the most beautiful and touching I’ve seen in opera yet. It worked in symbols and archetypes more than something you might find yourself doing with your sweetheart on Valentines. I must say that I completely love Mélisande's song from the tower Mes longs cheveux descendent. Haunting. I shall sing it to my daughters when I brush their hair. :)

The sets were extremely sparse and added to the overall subtlety of the production. It felt a little Greek and really made you think of the left and right of the stage as distinct and symbolic spaces. I caught some aspects of Art Nouveau, especially in the initial forest, and an almost childlike, shadowy city-scape for the castle scenes. The stage had some cool hydraulic lifts and the curtains could do a lot more than go up and down. The only place where my mind really wandered was when little Yniold looses his golden ball (cf. Grimm’s Der Froschkönig) under a large stone, which looks just like a Bosu Ball. He should have jumped on it and done a few compressions to get the heart rate going.

I highly recommend this 2.5 hour video. Find it on YouTube.

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