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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