Opera Preview: PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE (LA Opera)

Post image for Opera Preview: PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE (LA Opera)

by Tony Frankel on March 23, 2023

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


As part of its 2022-23 season, LA Opera is presenting Debussy’s one-of-a-kind enigmatic masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande in its entirety, conducted by Music Director James Conlon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion The production, which originated at Scottish Opera, was created by the internationally acclaimed director David McVicar. Tickets for performances March 25 through April 16, 2023, available here.

Will Liverman, Sydney Mancasola

The cast is led by baritone Will Liverman and soprano Sydney Mancasola as the titular lovers, both of them making their company debuts. Liverman came to international attention for his breakout 2021 Met Opera appearance as Charles, the leading role of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Mancasola comes to L.A. after appearing as Pamina in The Magic Flute at the Met. Golaud is bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, who made his LA Opera debut in 2007 as Leporello in Don Giovanni. One of the great basses of our time, , Ferruccio Furlanetto is King Arkel, and previously with the company as King Philip II in Don Carlo in both 2006 and 2018. One of today’s foremost exponents of French vocal music, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham makes her role debut as Geneviève. The role of Yniold will be performed by treble Kai Edgar, who recently made his Met debut in The Hours by Kevin Puts.

Kyle Ketelsen, Sydney Mancasola

The gorgeous music, with those scrumptious Debussy chords, is all there. But this innovative opera, the only one Debussy ever completed, contains some elusive melodies and even silence for effect. And despite its full length, the plot is brief, incidents few, characters simple, setting vague. The whole tale unfolds simply and with inexorable logic. I thought you should know just why this is before you go, so that you can soak up this marvel of an opera without wondering, “What the ..?”

Susan Graham, Ferruccio Furlanetto

First performed in 1893, Pelléas and Mélisande was first a Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck about the forbidden, doomed love of the title characters. The Symbolists (they preferred it with a capitol “S”) were  a group of chiefly French and Belgian poets of the latter part of the 19th century who sought to evoke aesthetic emotions by emphasizing the associative character of verbal, often private, images or by using synesthetic devices, such as vowel sounds, presumably evocative of color. In simpler terms, they had had enough of Naturalism, also known to us as “reality.” You see, Naturalism is largely based on Darwinian thinking, and since Divinity itself was challenged, these artists wanted to create an art form that wasn’t so bleak. As classical radio host Bill Morelock wrote, “No one really knew what Symbolism was, and that was how the Symbolists liked it. Providing the clueless with a road map really wouldn’t have been Symbolist.

Kai Edgar

Morelock continues, “Symbolism was about mere suggestion, the indirect gesture, the dream-like vision. Like all things hip in all ages, you either got it or you didn’t. And since dream-like visions tend to be exempt from adhering to rules of structure, linearity and sense, Symbolism was very easy not to get. The upshot was that we human beings contend, vainly, with forces too large for us even to perceive, much less overcome. Instead of cold Nature, Symbolism looked at human matrices, hierarchies, chance meetings, near misses, and timing, documenting emotional wreckage and deadly crimes of passion.

Ferruccio Furlanetto and The Cast

“Belgian dramatist Maeterlinck sought a higher level of meaning than the literal. Rather, he vaunted suggestion over description, fleeting impressions over narration, fatalistic destiny over character motivation, and naïve repetition over definitive pronouncements, all within a context of mysterious and mystical atmosphere.

Kyle Ketelsen, Sydney Mancasola

“His Symbolist manifesto for the stage begins in a misty ancient setting, a kingdom of shadows and memories called Allemonde. A 40-something prince named Golaud is out hunting the wild boar one day, as princes do, and gets lost. He comes across a frightened young woman by a spring. Mélisande weeps, and recoils even from the touch of his hand. She, too, is royalty — a princess — though far from home and uncertain how she got there. Yet, in the wink of an eye, the two are married. But Mélisande will soon meet the man she’s destined to love: Golaud’s half-brother Pelléas. The cards are dealt with a few vague gestures (the plot-building materials: reverie and fog), and the love triangle guarantees a succession of jealousies, rhapsodies and, ultimately, tragedies.

Sydney Mancasola, Ferruccio Furlanetto

“Pelléas and Mélisande fascinated composers. Maeterlinck and Symbolism were all the rage. Little wonder. Musical settings of literary texts usually involved the cutting of extraneous detail. Maeterlinck was kind enough to leave most everything out already. Symbolist tactics brought the phenomenal world, as described by words, and the visceral world, of which music was sovereign, closer than they’d ever been. Within a dozen years, music was given to Pelléas and Mélisande by Gabriel Fauré (a sonata in 1898), Claude Debussy (the 1902 opera), Arnold Schoenberg (a 1903 tone poem), and Jean Sibelius (a nine-movement suite).

Sydney Mancasola

“Fauré was the first. He wrote his incidental music for the first British production of the play — at the request of the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell — in June of 1898, five years after the Paris premiere. He had six weeks to complete the work and recycled some existing material. The famous Sicilienne Op.78 for cello and piano was born.”

Debussy deliberately shuns the well-developed, memorable repeated phrases of conventional opera; enticing melodic fragments often flit by. Indeed, Debussy’s setting of the text — which is practically lifted from the play — constantly veers between casual conversation and stylized song.

But if anyone mentions that Debussy’s opera wallows for its entire 2½ hour duration in a soft, understated monotone of stares and bland conversation, you will see this is untrue. While the mature adults (the doctor, Arkel and Golaud’s mother Geneviève) do restrain their expression, Yniold (Golaud’s young child by his first marriage) chirps perkily, the love scenes between Pelléas and Mélisande soar with unbridled passion and the grim tone of the final act serves as a foil for Golaud’s fitfully violent attempts to assess blame and find meaning in the tragedy he has caused. Indeed, the culmination of the fourth act, as the lovers spot Golaud and know they are doomed, is a musical orgasm, with ecstatic rising vocal phrases, accelerating rhythmic exhortations, a strong lingering embrace, a smoothly flowing orchestral release, and Mélisande gasping for a breath (“Je n’ai pas / de courage”) to blurt her final line as she flees.

Sydney Mancasola, Will Liverman

In a mixture of modesty and pride, Debussy had written: “I do not pretend to have discovered everything in Pelléas; but I have tried to trace a path that others may follow, broadening it with individual discoveries which will, perhaps, free dramatic music from the heavy yoke under with it has existed for so long.” Yet, having forged a radical new course in Pelléas that seemed to burst with further possibilities to liberate the genre from the formal structures and conventions of the prior three centuries, Debussy never pursued it himself in another opera. That would be left to others. The influence of Pelléas far outshone its limited early success. André Messager, the conductor of the premiere, said: “When Mélisande asks for the window to be opened in the last scene, she let in not only the sunset but all modern music.”

Pelléas: Will Liverman
Mélisande: Sydney Mancasola
Golaud: Kyle Ketelsen
Arkel: Ferruccio Furlanetto
Geneviève: Susan Graham
Yniold: Kai Edgar

photos by Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera

Pelléas and Mélisande
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 North Grand Ave.
ends on December 10, 2022
Saturday, March 25, 2023, at 7:30pm
Sunday, April 2, 2023, at 2pm
Wednesday, April 5, 2023, at 7:30pm
Saturday, April 8, 2023, at 7:30pm
Thursday, April 13, 2023, at 7:30pm
Sunday, April 16, 2023, at 2pm
for tickets, call 213. 972.8001 or visit LA Opera

Leave a Comment