Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Pelléas and Mélisande” is a French-styled “Total Work of Art”

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Pelléas and Mélisande

The “hero’s welcome” for composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen at the opening night performance of the L.A. Philharmonic’s production of Debussy’s “Pelléas and Mélisande” hit with a refreshing coolness of modesty; with an apropos absence of fanfare perfectly suited to the production at hand. Salonen so casually enters while other philharmonic members are still trickling in that one thinks, “huh, I guess that’s not him”.

But then suddenly the lights dim, and we’re off — the invented Narrator speaks abruptly, and when finished, Salonen pops up from between violins and starts conducting without a beat. No grand entrance. No applause or cult worship. Just the music. Just a plea to have us all experience this music together without an “us” and a “them”; without an “orchestra” and a “audience”.

And what music! The sounds of Debussy’s only opera are mostly soothing or melancholy, dominated as they are by strings, winds, and at times French horns (with the rest of the forlorn brass and percussion sections sitting in the dugout except for an occasional spooky cave, and such). No songs/arias, no A-B-A, no verse-chorus-verse, just a flowing river of sound that intermittently and seamlessly includes singers as if they were but more instruments with which to play. Except for the end of Acts 3 and 4, (when sweat finally forms on Salonen’s brow), perhaps it is because of the sweet strings’ dominance through most of the opera that the orchestra’s layout is shifted a bit, with all of the violins downstage, including to the left where the cellos typically are heard.

Like Debussy’s own conflict between pilgrimaging to Bayreuth and wanting out from under Wagner’s shadow, critics over the years have proclaimed the opera’s various interpretations as either too “Wagner-like” versus a resounding “French response to Wagner”. Of these, the L.A. Philharmonic’s production is surely the latter. The music is so full of rich, sublime French Impressionism, uniquely Debussy, undeniably from the same musical mind responsible for “Afternoon of a Fawn” and “Claire de Lune”, with perhaps some motifs here and there more akin to Grieg or Sibelius then to Wagner.

The singing employs the opera’s signature talk/sing style, just a stream of incessant-but-melodious recitatives. Every syllable of speech has its own note, with no braggadocio vowel allowed to upstage another with some bravura “ah-ah-ah” arpeggio.  Here, the music serves and becomes one with the text. (It is arguably, in musicology terms, more respectful and truer to a dramatic text than all other styles of opera.)

All of the singing is masterful and spot-on. Tenor Stéphane Degout sings the child-like innocence of Pelléas wonderfully, while the crisp baritone of Laurent Naouri perfectly matches the sternness of Golaud. Both are quite moving with their strong, mellifluous voices. Singing King Arkel, Sir Willard White perhaps has the most sonorous voice. His bass booms such that the vibrations move your chest as if you are next to a rock concert’s speakers.  Our soprano Mélisande comes to us via Camilla Tilling, and while admittedly hitting all of her notes with a lovely timbre, she is at times too pianissimo to be heard over the orchestra.  Perhaps an ethereal intention?

Although not a “full” opera production, it is surely just as satisfying. With its shuffled staging — a chorus back here, a bell ringing backstage there, or a group of homeless actors lying atop a perch up there — it is impossible to tell where the musicians end and the singer/actors begin. Or indeed where we the audience begin and end, as the singers sit “off-stage”, Brecht-like, within a tier of the audience, visible to all, alongside symbolically-blindfolded mannequins (whose arms are as outstretched and hopeful for light as the yearning Mélisande’s). With how well all of this works, one can’t imagine how some bloated operatic sets would have added a single thing. Which is a big thumbs up for Director David Edwards and Lighting Designer Colon Grenfell. This is not a “semi-staging” at all. The exquisite design fits the unmistakable delicacy of Debussy. Thus, we are surely still experiencing Gesamtkunstwerk (Wagner’s “Total Work of Art”), but in a fine, discreet — dare I say, French — manner, with a minimalism that in actuality perfectly captures the original intentions of the Minimalists in a way playwright/librettist Maurice Maeterlinck might have never gotten away with in his own day!

The minimalism actually heightens the conveyance of the emotions of fear or desire, or of the dramatic actions such as the boy, Yniold, up on Golaud’s shoulders, by using the simplest of gestures. Wounded? Lose the jacket and hold your side. In love? Open your arms and twirl. For “sets”? Each Act has one large representative prop placed on a pedestal down stage left; a sword here, a wig of flowing long hair there. And – that – is – all – we – need. If only contemporary opera would stop constructing decadent Doll Houses and employ this style more often, we might bring in a new audience with the reduced ticket prices….

Scenes end with characters slowly walking upstage, as if spirits, almost butoh-style. But the music almost never stops, instead melding into interlude music between the scenes, but then sliding, without even a sixteenth rest, right back into more singing. This is all very much like enjoying a D.C. go-go band (“and you don’t stop”), you just keep going and going. These interludes are themselves whole separate Debussy pieces that can be enjoyed in their own right. It is amazing to think that these were an afterthought, composed because the Parisian Opéra-Comique of the day, at the opera’s premiere in 1902, couldn’t change the sets as quickly as Debussy and Maeterlinck demanded.

The libretto is nearly straight prose from the play, with some edits. Maeterlinck initially allowed these edits, until a feud over who would sing Mélisande caused him to become as jealous and violent as Golaud himself, due to Debussy’s Pelleas-like falling in love with and taking control over the (Mélisande-like) production. Yes, that historical irony is also the story of the opera, in a nutshell. While the emotions of jealousy and love, of yearning and hopelessness, might be human and eternal, the worldview itself is somewhat foreign with its ancient, sexist representation of women. Thankfully, that is the only element of the production that makes us feel like we are in a “performative museum” rather than experiencing a living art form.

The opera is performed in a concert hall, with the philharmonic itself at center stage. If you’re going just to dress up, or for some spectacle to compete with Der Ring, you don’t understand why this opera survives — Debussy’s music itself (“Total Art”, aside). However, it is admittedly intellectually challenging music to experience. Without an aria’s repeated choruses, and with the music’s emotional, rhythmic, and dynamic ideas literally changing as rapidly as a human conversation, the style demands that you either just jump in and flow along in your inner tube, or be forever perplexed as you wait for some snappy leitmotif to whistle. (About a fifth of Friday’s audience shamefully gave up and left these rarely played sounds at intermission. Alas.)

But these demands are rewarded. Such perfect sounds to match the actions and emotions. The cold somber cave with its low, creepy notes. The sweetness of the strings as Pelléas asks Mélisande to “Give me your hand.” Then quickly again to a stern Golaud with a sharp, tight musical phrase. An amazing achievement in opera, to do this continuously for nearly three hours, like a musical cousin to one of James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness works.

Oh thank goodness this conductor chose this work in 1995 and recreates it for us again! (And –oh! — if only Debussy had lived to complete one of his Edgar Allen Poe operas!) While Salonen begins with a forced modesty that fits the overall inclusive postmodern style of the production, he ends with a well-deserved standing ovation.  Sorry, it is hard not to hero-worship this guy, with his groovy black tunic, his handsomely Finnish James-Bond-villain features, and his palpable desire to get us excited about the music he so obviously loves.

Copyright 2-21-2016

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The Good, Hard Work of “Hail, Caesar!”

Josh Brolin in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar!”

The Coen Brothers’ new movie, Hail, Caesar!, shows you the man behind the curtain at a Hollywood studio. 

Set during the 1950’s, the story involves Josh Brolin’s “Everyman”, Eddie Mannix, which is also a fortuitous alliteration. 

The first shot of the film shows Eddie deep in remorse, alone in a Confessional.  He has failed to quit smoking and has lied to his beloved wife about it — he smoked 3 cigarettes that day!  This is at once funny, as we hear the subtext of the Priest’s heavy sigh (“this fellow really needs to give himself a break”) – and yet, Brolin’s earnest crying is heart-wrenching.  One cannot help but love this Eddie, despite his, at times, stern hand (shown in the very next scene).  He is an honest, good man.  Which, by the way, is NOT a comment about the real, historical, Eddie Mannix.

Eddie is a studio head’s right-hand man, a “fixer”, and his task is to oil the gears of Capitol Studios (not so-subtly named).  Which is hard.  This devout Catholic, Eddie, sees that the workers within the studio contain the entire gamut of human “sin” – greed, homosexuality, pregnancy out of wedlock … communism….  And his main job is to make sure the studio itself, like a film, keeps up its illusion of glamour and purity.  He is The Director and Writer of the studio itself, for the gossip columnists and the public.   He is protective, wheeling and dealing to protect the employees, and never judging (“let him who is without sin…”), except when they are disloyal to the one True Cause – making movies.  In one scene, in his own modest “Father Knows Best” kitchen, he asks his wife for advice at choosing between his current job and an offer of an easier, higher-paying job.  His wife literally says, “you know best” – a TV-sitcom clue that Eddie is the metaphorical father to all of these misfits of Hollywood. 

Meanwhile, a competing capitalist industry of the 1950’s tempts Eddie to work for them.  And what do they produce, exactly? The Lockheed recruiter gleams and brags, “the H-bomb”. (“Armageddon,” notes our religious protagonist instantly.)   What about the ideological competition of the world — the Communists?  These are portrayed as coffee-house liberals living in luxury, talking about philosophy and economics, but not actually working at all.  (A bit of a cruel joke by the Coen Brothers…).  It seems the Coen Brothers see artists as trying to do something good, despite living in an irrational world.  Making art, is “the right thing” in Hail, Caesar!, similar in theme to the Italian’s current response to terrorism – giving youth money to spend on Art and Culture. 

Hollywood should not be completely flattered, however.   Could there possibly have been a message in the fact that actors seem so easily malleable, duped by the latest fad?  Or that the writers all seem to be bitter and smug?  Yet, this goes along with the Christian theme of “sin”.  No one is perfect (ok, except for maybe the real-life Lone Ranger, Hobie Doyle, played with boyish-charm perfection by Alden Ehrenreich).  These are fallible people.  But in scene after scene, all we see are people who are working, and working hard.  The work is palpable.  From the extras on the Roman set, hanging and literally suffering on the cross, waiting patiently all day for their lunch break, to the guys hauling plastic trees on and off the set, to the exasperated directors, to the lawyers, to the editors holed up smoking in their dark caves — this place is WORKING.  And with every pan over the mega-studio’s seemingly infinite number of warehouses/soundstages, one realizes that this is a factory as immense as anything the Lockheeds of the world can flaunt.  Hollywood, too, is a major industry, the Entertainment Industrial Complex shown in all its glory. 

Cinematically, Hail, Caesar! is just so much beautiful eye-candy, typical of the Coen Brothers.  Many scenes are homages to various genres — from spy thrillers with enemy submarines to film noir with a shady detective and femme fatale.  There are whole scenes dedicated to movies-within-the-movie, likely the most expensive and arduous scenes to produce, such as the over-the-top western, kaleidoscopic water dance, and the musical number (where the quite-talented Channing Tatum gets one of the bigger laughs of the film).  The Coen Brothers put their money — the film’s budget — where their mouth was — the theme that movies are freaking expensive and a lot of hard work, just for your pleasure, buddy! 

And what to make of the main movie-within-the-movie, Hail, Caesar!, a movie about Faith, which involves a cocky Roman, played by superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who meets Jesus and immediately feels compelled to kneel humbly before Him.  Filming the climactic scene, Baird actually moves everyone on the set; they pause briefly in a spiritual moment.  But — he forgets the last line (ironically the word “faith”), curses “Goddamit!”, and dispels the illusion instantly, and people continue their secular work without a beat.  Just as we do when the lights come up.

There is a scene with Eddie, sitting in a screening room watching a rough edit of the opening for Hail, Caesar!, and right after the opening title appears, we cut back to Eddie, watching the rough cut.   Eddie is the star.  Eddie is Caesar.  Eddie is not the studio head (who is the appropriately named fat-cat, Mr. Skank).  He’s just a guy who works his ass off and isn’t worth a whole lot of money himself.  He represents the real heroes of the movie industry.  And by the end of the film, we have just shared in a very sweet love letter, thanking all of the people who work so hard to make us movies — or any Art, really — in this chaotic, horrible world. 

Yes, Hail Caesar.

Copyright 2-6-16

The Good, Hard Work of “Hail, Caesar!”