Arts & Events

An Enigma Inside A Conundrum: PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday August 18, 2018 - 03:58:00 PM

West Edge Opera opened its 2018 summer season with Claude Debussy’s remarkable Pelléas et Mélisande. At its premiere in 1902 at Paris’s Opéra Comique, Pelléas et Mélisande created quite a stir. Some loved it, and some hated it. Unquestionably, it offered opera-goers something entirely new. Here there were no arias, no set numbers at all. Instead, there was an immensely fluid musical current that involved, in almost equal proportion, both orchestra and singers. Moreover, in an opera where every sung word is meant to be heard and understood, what dialogue there is often involves non sequiters. When Golaud, a man of forty-some years already getting some grey hairs, gets lost in the woods while hunting and happens across a beautiful young woman weeping beside a well, among the many questions he asks her is, “Quel âge avez-vous? / “How old are you?” To which the young Mélisande answers, “Je commence à avoir froid./”I’m beginning to feel cold.”  

In spite of the fact that in this encounter Golaud learns almost nothing of Mélisande beyond her name, he marries her. But we the audience know nothing of how this came about. This information is conveyed in a letter read aloud by Golaud’s mother, Geneviève, at the beginning of the second scene in the opera. In this letter, Golaud reveals that after six months of marriage he knows no more of Mélisande than the little he got from her on their first chance meeting when they both were lost in the forest.  

So what is Pelléas et Mélisande about? I’d venture to say that it’s about the ineffable feminine, the enigma that a beautiful young woman presents to the outside world, especially to a man much older than her but one susceptible to her mysterious beauty. In saying this, I might add that it’s clear from the beginning of this opera that the older man and beautiful young woman will never truly understand one another. Even in marriage there will always be an unbreachable chasm between them. He may question her relentlessly, but her answers will never give him what he wants. Her replies will remain oblique and opaque, as will the essence of her being, no matter how he strives to comprehend and grasp this. 

Set to a poetic play by Maurice Maeterlinck, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande has a unique place in opera history. It ushers in modernism, shaking off all the old formulas of operatic tradition. It introduces new, unusual harmonies. In doing so, Pelléas et Mélisande almost miraculously casts its unique spell on each and every audience that hears it performed. Audiences may initially find it weird; but they will almost inevitably come around as the music envelops them. Debussy’s music grows on you. It’s that simple. And it’s that beautifully mysterious. 

This much said, I have a few complaints about West Edge Opera’s current production of Pelléas et Mélisande. The first complaint involves the very first thing one sees and hears. During the brief orchestral prologue, a beautiful work in itself, stage director Keturah Stickman outrageously has Mélisande lying prone beside the well, and writhing violently and crying out aloud. I can’t imagine a more misguided way of opening this opera! Stickman seems to want to make Mélisande into a Lucia di Lammermoor mad woman! Overacting has no part whatsoever in the role of Mélisande. I gasped out loud in anger at this outrageously wrong-headed opening gesture of Keturah Stickman’s staging of Pelléas et Mélisande. 

My second complaint is that baritone Efrain Solis, who portrayed Golaud, sang well enough, though he simply did not succeed in projecting his voice sufficiently to make every word audible and comprehensible, as needs to be the case in this opera. Even though I know every word of this opera by heart, I could not make out the words Efrain Solis was singing. (If you want to hear the greatest Golaud, listen to a recording of French baritone Gérard Souzay singing this role.) On the other hand, mezzo-soprano Kendra Broom clearly enunciated every word and sang quite beautifully. To my taste, Kendra Broom’s voice is not ideal for the role of Mélisande, being perhaps too dark and fulsome; but she acquitted herself admirably. In the role of Pelléas, tenor David Blalock sang with intelligence and intensity, and his diction in French was impeccable. Pelléas, Golaud’s younger half-brother, is much closer in age to Mélisande than is her husband, and he seems to understand Mélisande intuitively. Predictably, he becomes smitten with his half-brother’s young wife. Mélisande, in turn, matter-of-factly acknowledges that she loves Pelléas and has loved him from when she first saw him. This, of course, causes family problems. 

Veteran bass-baritone Philip Skinner was a very sympathetic Arkel, the nearly blind grandfather of Golaud and Pelléas. Contralto Malin Fritz was convincing as Geneviève. In minor roles, Sophie Stolte sang Yniold at the August 12 performance I attended; and baritone William Neely portrayed the Doctor who attends Mélisande’s mysterious death at the close of the opera. Mélisande, you see, exits this opera as she entered it, an enigma to the end.  

West Edge Opera’s latest venue, the Craneway Conference Center at the Richmond waterfront, offers some drawbacks, both visually and aurally. Due to a large post situated in front of the orchestra, seats have to be aligned at an angle. Even so, the central post and spotlights hanging next to it manage to partially block one’s view of the stage action, and strings of decorative lights intrude as well on the projected supertitles. Acoustically, the theatrical space required heavy curtains to dampen the intrusive reverb effect that unfortunately marred West Edge Opera’s earlier recital in this space of the excellent mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci. For Pelléas et Mélisande, the company’s Music Director, Jonathan Khuner, led the scaled-down orchestra in a fine rendition of Debussy’s innovative score. In this opera, the orchestral music moves us just as deeply, perhaps even more deeply, as do the singers.