Domestic abuse, a lethal love triangle, and symbolism all run rampant in Claude Debussy’s masterpiece, Pelléas et Mélisande. And though the opera — his only one — was completed in 1902, it’s obvious that, well, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
Indeed, as staged by Los Angeles Opera in a 2017 production from Scottish Opera, the work, which was originally scheduled for May 2020 but was canceled because of the pandemic, can now be seen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through April 16. Happily, the opera remains a moody fusion of rapturous music, high drama, and soul-searching beauty. (When LA Opera last staged the work, in — gulp — 1995, it was helmed by that era’s bad boy of opera, Peter Sellars, and was set in, of all places, Malibu.)
With a libretto adapted by the composer from the play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck, this David McVicar-directed mounting, its enigmatic bent ever present, is not an easy work. But thanks also to a stellar cast, Rae Smith’s scenic and costume designs (19th-century lace and the like), and Pablo Santiago’s lush lighting scheme, this Pelléas, for those who choose to stick it out, proves a memorable journey into a repressed world where the unseen and unspoken do battle with the onstage machinations, as simple, yet horrifying and strange, as they are.
Soprano Sydney Mancasola is cast as Mélisande, her dulcet tones elegiacally mesmerizing, and baritone Will Liverman delivered the vocal goods with panache as Pelléas — both of them making their LAO debuts. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen as Golaud, Pelléas’s half brother, did the bad-guy honors, and the five-act opera flowed à la Debussy’s iconic orchestral work La mer. As such, it’s instantly recognizable as unadulterated Debussy, albeit decidedly influenced by Richard Wagner.
And can we talk atmosphere? While the score is continuous and melodious, the vocalizing is conversational, meaning sans arias — nary a “Vesti la giubba” or “Vissi d’arte” are heard here — a novel concept for opera then and now.
Set against the backdrop of Smith’s gorgeous Vilhelm Hammershøi-inspired designs, awash in subdued colors — ashen grays and the flattest of browns — the opera’s single set, equipped with sliding panels doubling as castle and forest (interior and exterior, respectively), is also an apt metaphor for the conscious and unconscious, claustrophobia be damned.
This psychological melodrama — not quite the stuff of happily-ever-after fairy tales — begins with Golaud of Allemonde (“all the world,” for non-Francophiles) hunting in the woods. Happening upon a gorgeous young gal Mélisande, lost and lolling near a pool, her elongated, come-hither tresses a feminine calling card, Golaud, in his resonant bass-baritone, immediately brands himself a take-no-prisoners type of dude. At the March 25 opening-night performance, the orchestra was equally swelling and delicate under Music Director James Conlon’s deft baton.
With the scene change, the fair maiden is now married to Golaud and living in the family’s dingy chateau, where she encounters and eventually falls in love with Pelléas. The minimalist set, occasionally veering from Vermeer-like to the unabashed bleakness of Gerhard Richter’s more contemporary grays, was complemented by the orchestra Saturday. Opting for color over volume, Debussy crafted a dreamy score, including harp, strings, percussion, and woodwinds, that makes for a tantalizing soundscape.
Next, we meet Geneviève, mother to Golaud and Pelléas. Sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in her role debut, her silvery voice remains captivating as she reads a letter to the half-blind King Arkel, sung by the commanding bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. The missive tells of the wedding but also raises the question of who, precisely, is this young feminine creature.
Things inevitably spiral downward, with Mélisande mistakenly — or not — dropping her wedding ring down a well and eventually getting caught in a tryst when, combing her long, long hair in the castle’s tower as Pelléas kisses it, the braid gets stuck in a thicket of tree branches. Golaud — who has a son from his first marriage, Yniold (in his LAO debut, a convincing Kai Edgar makes for an adorable, sailor-suit-clad tyke) — later holds the lad aloft, in order that he can spy on his half uncle and stepmother, who are now obviously in love. In the climax, the enraged Golaud his finds his wife with her lover, kills his half brother, and wounds Mélisande.
While the plot has one level of meaning, the tragedy also represents a chiaroscuro of contrasts; in addition to the requisite light and dark, there is love and hate, birth and death. And as the bedridden Mélisande, a mystifying presence to the end, is tended to by a physician — a stalwart Patrick Blackwell — she manages to give birth to a girl. With Golaud begging for forgiveness and his spouse maintaining her innocence, she then dies, singing the somewhat baffling words “la vérité!”
Debussy and Maeterlinck make use of elusive allegories and symbols to plumb an array of emotions, all the while capturing the universal. And though we may not fully know the motivations of these characters, we are still in awe of the delivery system: magnificent music that makes an unambiguous beeline toward the heart.