Opera as Oxymoron: Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met

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Gerald Finley and Magdalena Kožená. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Gerald Finley and Magdalena Kožená. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Metropolitan Opera House
January 1, 2011

Claude Debussy
Pelléas et Mélisande
Libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck

Pelléas – Stéphane Dégout
Mélisande – Magdalena Kožená
Golaud – Gerald Finley
Arkel – Willard White
Geneviève – Felicity Palmer
Yniold – Neel Ram Nagarajan
Physician – Paul Corona
Shepherd – Donovan Singletary

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Conductor – Sir Simon Rattle

Production – Jonathan Miller
Stage Director – Paula Williams
Set designer – John Conklin
Costume designer – Clare Mitchell
Lighting designer – Duane Schuler

Perhaps 2011 will be the year of the oxymoron. Certainly having a Republican House with a Democratic Senate and administration feels oxymoronic enough without having a Tea Party within the Republican ranks to pile contradiction upon contradiction. It may be that such a tangle of cross-purposes will mute the stridency of our public discourse, and suggest that we must consider the contrary case before asserting our own point of view. If that is to be the character of the year to come, one can, with cautious optimism, hope that it will provide relief from the noisy mindlessness we have been subjected to in the preceding one. Seeing Debussy’s only completed opera on the first day of the new year prompts such hopes: Debussy was passionately committed to finding his truth within quietude and ambiguity.

Only twelve days earlier I had seen the video re-run of the Met’s new Don Carlo production. Truth be told, I am not a big fan of middle period Verdi, even though I adore the late operas. Being on the cusp, Don Carlo (with which I was totally unfamiliar) offered the possibility that some of my adoration could be transferred back and provide a bridge to a new appreciation of the canonical pre-1867 masterpieces. The results were mixed: while I admired many aspects of the production and was transported by a few moments of compositional inspiration, I found myself distressed by the (overly) emphatic singing backed by insistent, often strident accompaniment. Verdi simply drives home his dramatic point with volume and force too often for ears that seek subtlety, nuance, and color rather than histrionics and power in the human voice. Somehow, Aïda, Otello, and the Requiem balance all these elements out in a way that justifies every compositional and dramatic decision, but with tired ears I bid adieu to Don Carlo before the final act, having had enough of the impressive vocal heavy lifting of the principals (including the mightily impressive singing of Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip, who turns out to be the most interesting character).

Such forceful expression would seem to be built into the nature of mainstream opera. It is partly a function of the new social role that opera and orchestral music assumed in the early nineteenth century, when it reached out to new and larger audiences, when larger halls and opera houses were built with audience capacities in the thousands, which called for voices, vocal techniques, and vocal writing capable of projecting to fill the new, vast acoustical spaces. The corresponding enlargement of the orchestra, which was inspired by opera’s appetite for more color and power, only placed greater stresses on vocal technique. The athletic requirements of dramatic singing in Verdi, Wagner, etc often result in a pronounced vibrato that can either sweeten and characterize the tone or wobble around distressingly so as to obscure the pitch, as was the case with the Princess Eboli (Anna Smirnova) in Don Carlo. But I have noticed that opera-lovers can place a high value on the very dramatic forcefulness that can produce harsh tone, pitch wobble, and other “effects” that ratchet up the drama, and I have to conclude that this is a matter of taste.

Which brings us to Debussy and his success in producing what in many ways is an “anti-opera,” one that somehow still belongs within the operatic canon and that works effectively even in the cavernous reaches of the 3000+ seat Metropolitan. Debussy’s place in music history has been ossified as “the father of modern music,” and it used to be fashionable to point to scores such as Jeux as anticipating all aspects of the 20th century avant-garde, with its de-stabilization of basic elements such as harmony, rhythm and tempo, and orchestral color, along with its fragmentary and non-melodic textures. Debussy’s reputation as a modernist contrarian is supported by stories about his student improvisations driving everyone from the room with their hands over their ears, and given spin by irrelevancies such as the scandal over Nijinsky’s sexually explicit choreography of L’après-midi d’un faune fourteen years after the work’s composition. What may get lost in injecting Debussy into a grand historical narrative of modernism is the very stable and well-formed aesthetic that Debussy developed for his own music, one that was unique and self-contained, depending neither on predecessors, a contemporary “school” or movement, or on successors. The label “Impressionism” was obnoxious to him and should be to us; the pairing of him with Ravel obscures sharp contrasts between the two both in musical means and aesthetic purposes. Like some of the avant-gardists around John Cage, Debussy’s unique art owes less to his musical colleagues than it does to artists in other media — for Debussy that would be the literary figures of the Symbolist movement, from Poe and his translator Baudelaire to Mallarmé and Verlaine, and in the case of this opera, the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (Debussy’s exact contemporary). Debussy’s individuality is marked by subtlety, ambiguity, and a kind of meaningful reticence that comes close to his older and younger contemporaries Fauré and Satie, both of whom held aloof from fashions and schools (in Satie’s case only until around 1917 when he started to enjoy the role of éminence grise). For Debussy, meanings that were indicated either indirectly or by silence were more powerful than those asserted by force, and this core tenet of his art resonated with the spirit of Symbolism and specifically with Maeterlinck’s play.

“Pelléas et Mélisande” was a big hit when it was introduced as a play in 1892, so much so that a number of composers provided incidental music for it, notably Fauré (for an 1898 London production) and Sibelius (1905, Helsinki). Schoenberg would compose a vast, hyper-romantic tone-poem for huge orchestra (1905), unaware of the existence of Debussy’s opera. It is a script that almost begs for musical amplification. As I watched the narrative unfold, I tried to imagine the play as originally conceived being performed with spoken dialogue onstage. (Debussy set the script as given, with a few cuts approved by Maeterlinck and absent of any poetic interventions that transform plays into conventional libretti.) My conclusion was that it would be clunky, pretentious, and mannered in a way that modern audiences would not accept. As a playwright, Maeterlinck has become completely passé, and in fact was already achieving that status just after World War I. Maeterlinck may have come to feel the same way about his plays as conventionally performed, that “any actor, due to the hindrance of physical mannerisms and expressions, would inadequately portray the symbolic figures of his plays.” He even went so far as to write plays for marionettes so as to exclude any connection to a realistic depiction of action.

Such a strongly anti-realistic aesthetic is ideally suited to musical expression; Schoenberg’s purely musical treatment of the story is as dramatically effective, albeit in a different way, as Debussy’s opera. (Schoenberg admitted that he couldn’t capture the atmosphere of the story as well as Debussy, a rare piece of humility on his part.) While music can have a somewhat dematerializing effect on more realistic stories (we believe that Aïda and Carmen are flesh-and-blood women living firmly on the earth whose passions are mythic in intensity but still plausible), for stories that are already lodged in the realm of Symbolism, music seems to return the narrative to its native medium, away from the specific references of words and toward the mysterious “empty” spaces surrounding them.

All of this bears on the aesthetics of producing and performing this opera. The cast presents a spectrum, with Golaud at one end as the most “normal” character who inhabits a world of tangible physical reality, and Mélisande at the other as ambiguous, etherial, evasive, naïve, erotic, possessed of some form of mysterious knowledge. Each is unable to experience the world that the other inhabits. This production took a middle position which could offer a vivid portrait of each character, although I found its bias slightly favoring Golaud — he emerged as the pivotal figure of the opera owing to his “reality.” This may also have been due to the believable, even sympathetic portrayal by Gerald Finley; his forays into violence seemed motivated by plausible frustrations, and his conscience, horrified by what he had descended to, voiced a perspective easily shared by the audience. Magdelena Kozená’s Mélisande seemed to keep one foot lightly on the ground, and her growing erotic attachment to Pelléas was shown both in her voice, which had an earthy richness in its lower registers, and in her body-language.

The scene in which she is combing her hair and singing can be done two ways: either she is singing to herself, oblivious to the outside world, or, as in this production, she is conscious of the presence of another and is calling out to him, or perhaps to the world in general. Since the libretto never explains much, there are many such details open to the interpretation of the production: Mélisande can seem either detached from ordinary reality and simply unaware or she can be portrayed as consciously disingenuous, as when she lies to Golaud about where she “misplaced” her ring. In Kozená’s interpretation, the lie seemed quite deliberate. I came away with the impression that Mélisande was practicing a form of resistance to the attempts of the males around her to define and control her behavior and indeed her identity. Pelléas participates in this attempted control with his effort to bind her to himself with her own hair. Even Willard White’s Arkel, discussed below, takes a more aggressive tone with her than one usually encounters. But rather than remaining otherworldly and helpless, Kozená’s Mélisande attempts to find her own way toward a kind of agency.

Jonathan Miller’s set emphasizes the physicality of the story by utilizing tall stone walls on a rotating set that can display them from either the outside or the inside; verticality is built into the symbolic scheme of the story (from tower to stagnant pools and grottos, the vertical location of scenes is always crucial) but the set adds significance to the condition of inside/outside with its clearly articulated margins of windows, doors, and various waters’ edges. Kozená crucially positions herself on these margins: of stream, well, and even on the edge of the stage with her hair trailing into the opera pit after being abused by Golaud, as if she were brought to the margin of the physical world itself. The temporal setting has been moved from the customary medieval world to that of Debussy’s time, the Victorian era. This works reasonably well, considering the more “present” quality of the characters, but it produces some incongruities, such as Mélisande’s hair not reaching quite far enough down the tower. We can then read the ensuing “love-making” conversation as a shared fantasy as much as it is a reality. However concrete the visible stage might seem, the very slowly rotating scenery combined perfectly with Debussy’s seamlessly linked interludes to dissolve one reality and replace it with another before our eyes, as in a dream.

That Debussy would have endorsed such a mediating approach may be gleaned from his explanation as to why he chose this play: “its dream-like atmosphere, [Pelléas] contains far more humanity than those so-called ‘real-life documents’, [and] seemed to suit my intentions admirably.” The opera’s references to the poor, and the inclusion of the three starving paupers in the grotto scene and of the servants as they gather for the death of Mélisande, remind us of the larger world beyond the castle-forest-sea, beyond the singing characters represented onstage; that ‘outside’ reality is inescapable and tragic, as incapable of being remedied as the fated story of the protagonists. It is a grim reality beyond the margins that we are not to forget, and if we are paying attention, we cannot ignore the mysterious connections between it and the ‘dream-like’ stage events.

Pelléas, sung by Stephane Dégout, is the man in the middle. Brother of Golaud, he lives unhappily in the physical world: he is spatially torn between being with his dying friend and (as he is reminded by Arkel) with his sick father. Vocally, the role is positioned between tenor and baritone ranges; it is sometimes taken by one or the other, in this case, by a baritone with an extended top, a voice that works perfectly well for the role. Although he worries about the consequences of her (intentional?) irresponsibility in losing her wedding ring, his fatal attraction to Mélisande provokes behavior that can only be described as “being carried away,” intoxicating himself with her hair tumbling about him and imagining that he can bind her to him with it. His death seems less an act of brutality than a form of evaporation. He is mourned not by any words or deeds, but by Mélisande’s subsequent physical condition; it is almost as if he was the missing link between Mélisande and Golaud whose absence severs whatever connection they may have had.

Willard White’s portrayal of Arkel was for me the most surprising of the production: despite his infirmity (he hobbles around on canes here) he has such a powerful, commanding figure and voice that he comes across as someone who still wields regal power, and the usual tone of resignation morphs here into resentment, bitterness, even reproach. It is remarkable how Debussy’s subtle and somewhat neutral vocal lines can be shaped and defined by the tone and temper of the performer. While White’s performance earned bravos, it reduced the character’s position of authority as the philosophical voice of the piece: Arkel’s fatalism usually seems completely aligned with the tone of the orchestra, fatalistically accepting whatever transpires onstage, the polar opposite to, for example, Berg’s editorializing about Wozzeck’s fate in the final interlude of that opera. Not so in this production, but then, Simon Rattle’s approach to the orchestral commentary also found a middle ground: while coaxing the most subtle palette of refined sonority, especially from the strings, he allowed Debussy’s color contrasts to emerge with clarity and sometimes even sharp edges. This was all to the good in revealing the astonishing eloquence and inventiveness of Debussy’s score: the ascerbic writing for double reeds in parallel seconds, the intrusive little muted horn fanfares associated with Golaud, the whole-tone cluster in the low strings for Mélisande’s death, and many other brief but vivid moments of color that emerge from the quiet orchestral background. Rattle found a mid-point between the subtle, highly refined, intimate, and almost subliminal orchestral writing (most of the time like a chamber ensemble rather than a full orchestra) and a vivid etching of particular moments. His pacing and coordination allowed the singers to display the very natural way Debussy allows language to be presented on-stage. There is a conversational quality to the vocal writing (Schoenberg found it unidiomatic!) that can make one forget they are listening to singing rather than inflected speech; nevertheless, the performers worked effectively within the limited vocal ranges to fully characterize each utterance, and the subtlety of the lyricism was all the more telling.

I’ve saved my comment on one particular character for last because the role, though small, says much about the work as a whole. Yniold, the little boy who possesses an oxymoronic combination of wisdom and innocence, is crucial to our understanding of the story. He is a stand-in both for Golaud, as witness to events inaccessible to adult eyes, and for us, the audience, as a voice which is free of the subjective distortions of desire or trauma. Debussy called for a boy soprano for the role, and objected to the practice of using an adult woman which became conventional during his own lifetime. For this performance, Neel Ram Nagarajan rendered the part superbly; his small but clear and spot-on voice carried through the house effortlessly, and his cool tone contrasted tellingly with the heated outbursts of Golaud. One has to also admire the ability of someone who can perform clearly and accurately while standing on the shoulders of another singer. Hagarajan, selected from the Met’s boys choir, displayed the cool and on-stage composure of a seasoned performer, and provided a final element of color and consciousness to an extremely satisfying performance.

About the author

Larry Wallach

Larry Wallach is a pianist, musicologist, and composer who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and heads the Music Program at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. He has also taught composition at Bard College. He studied piano privately with Henry Danielowitz and Kenneth Cooper, and was trained at Columbia University where he studied music history with Paul Henry Lang, performance practices with Denis Stevens, and composition with Otto Luening, Jack Beeson, and Charles Wuorinen. He earned a doctorate in musicology in 1973 with a dissertation about Charles Ives. In 1977, he was awarded a grant to become part of a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of North Carolina directed by William S. Newman, focussing on performance practices in earlier piano music. He went on to participate in the Aston Magna Summer Academy in 1980, where he studied fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson, both privately and in master classes.

Larry Wallach has been an active performer of chamber music with harpsichord and piano, and of twentieth century music. He has collaborated with harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, with recorder virtuoso Bernard Krainis, with violinist Nancy Bracken of the Boston Symphony, with violinist/violist Ronald Gorevic, with gambist Lucy Bardo, and with his wife, cellist Anne Legêne, performing on both modern and baroque instruments. He has appeared with the Avanti Quintet, the New York Consort of Viols, and is a regular performer on the “Octoberzest” series in Great Barrington. He has been on the staffs of summer early music workshops at World Fellowship and Pinewoods Camp.
In 1996, he presented a program at the Bard Music Festival devoted to Charles Ives designed around a performance the composer’s Second Violin Sonata along with all the source tunes that are quoted in it. Part of this program was repeated at Lincoln Center in NY. He has also appeared on programs in Washington DC, and at St. Croix VI. As a composer, his works have been heard in New York, Boston, Amherst, the Berkshires, and at Bard College.

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