Extraordinary PellÈas et MÈlisande

How unique was this performance? Well, if you missed this PellÈas et
, you missed the only production of the work in a major
American house in the past two years. And none is projected here through

PellÈas et MÈlisande is based on a play of the same name by
Belgian born, Maurice Maeterlinck. It was first performed in 1893.
Maeterlinck, a prolific and popular writer in his day, was a symbolist, as
were many of France’s greatest poets of the age including Baudelaire,
MallarmÈ, Verlaine and Rimbaud. These symbolist poets, who believed that
music was the most direct route to the emotions, strove to write musical
verse- and in fact their poetry inspired not only Debussy, but composers –
Gounod, Ravel, FaurÈ and others – to create a new and enchanting age of
French art songs, known as MÈlodie What does symbolism in an opera
look like?

Well, an outline of the story will help. Of course, there will be a love
triangle. But the first thing to note in this opera is that first person we
see and hear in the opening scene is a man, who, like Dante, in the first
lines of the Inferno, suddenly realizes that smack in the middle
of his life, he is lost in dark woods. This is Prince Golaud, who
immediately hears weeping and encounters another lost person – MÈlisande, a
beautiful maiden with cascading golden hair. She has just dropped a jeweled
crown, which an unknown “he” had given her, into a nearby pond.
Still weeping, she tells Golaud that everyone in the distant land she came
from has hurt her in some way. She refuses his offer to retrieve the crown,
by threatening to leap into the water herself, if he does so. Golaud, who
is widowed, eventually marries Melisande. The pair return to Golaud’s
homeland, Allemonde, where MÈlisande, who has still not told Golaud
anything about her past, will meet his mother, GeneviËve, his blind
grandfather King Arkel, his little son, Yniold and his younger half
brother, PellÈas. Allemonde is a land of despair, poverty and famine. The
castle is surrounded by dark gardens and endless forests, though the sea is
visible from a nearby coast. Within the castle itself, PellÈas’ father lies
seriously ill. He will recover, but the mysterious young woman with
cascading golden tresses will not bring hoped for joy and light to the
castle. Its gloom will devour her.

Symbolism? Whereas Golaud and the young lovers, PellÈas and MÈlisande
suffer through experiences that every other operatic love triangle suffers:
love, lost love, unrequited love, hate, rage, fear, betrayal – what makes
this trio unique is that none of them seems to know where they are, who
they are, what they want. They do not understand themselves, and certainly
not each other, but seem suspended in some floating space. However, the
chracters in this opera have some strangely interrelated characteristics.
Whereas King Arkel is blind, MÈlisande’s eyes are never closed unless she’s
sleeping. In an early encounter PellÈas takes MÈlisande to the once
miraculous Fountain of the Blind, no longer valued because Arkel has lost
his sight. The ability and inability “to see” in all its
meanings is of primary concern to both Maeterlinck and Debussy. The word
yeux, eyes is spoken nineteen times in this libretto,
aveugle, blind, nine times.

And we come across strangely related interactions. In a rendezvous with
PellÈas, MÈlisande drops the gold wedding ring Golaud had given her into a
deep well. At that very moment Golaud is thrown from his horse and

Maeterlinck had an oft quoted credo “Art always works by detour
and never acts directly. “ Apparently, the musical detour to
MÈlisande, a woman with no known background, proved puzzling to Debussy,
who wrote to a friend of the difficulty of creating music from
“nothingness”. Fortunately, he succeeded. Perhaps he had
learned of a scholar’s view of Maeterlinck’s work, which asserts that
MÈlisande had been one of Bluebeard’s wives, who escaped with a detested

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has been daring in its attempts to present
opera and other important vocal works in its theatrically-challenged space.
Whereas the Mozart/Daponte operas sometimes seemed shoehorned into
inadequate space, this PellÈas et MÈlisande with a larger cast
than Cosi fan tutte, was enhanced by the thoughtful restraints of
its semi- staged concert presentation – which allowed the orchestra – the
musical heart and voice of the opera – to carry Debussy’s sensual score to
the audience’s heart.

The production, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and directed by David
Edwards, was previously presented in London’s Royal Festival Hall in 2014
with the same superb baritone leads. High baritone, StÈphane Degout was an
ardent PellÈas and bass baritone, Laurent Naouri ranged superbly through
Golaud’s towering rages and sorrowful regrets. Camilla Trilling was a clear
voiced, vulnerable MÈlisande, soprano ChloÈ Briot, a captivating Yniold.
Well known veteran artists, Dame Felicity Palmer and Sir Willard White,
sang GeneviËve and Arkel, respectively.

Director David Edwards added static nude blindfolded figures at the rear
of Disney Hall to reflect the often voiced concerns about blindness, as
well as to symbolize the devastation of the land. They enhanced both the
depth of the stage and depth of despair in Allemonde and its castle.

But it was Eka-Pekka Salonen’s command of the orchestra that illuminated
the brilliance and mystery of this opera in new ways. It seemed as though
Salonen was making a point of keeping an almost audible beat going beneath
the restless wash of orchestral colors. Salonen, who has spoken of his love
for this score, added a narrator to both productions, who read text drawn
from Maeterlinck’s writing. I’m not sure the words were helpful, but
actress, Kate Burton’s narration acted as a kind of frame, that helped set
the tale unfolding behind her, in a land of make believe.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information:

PellÈas: Stephan Degout; MÈlisande: Camilla Tilling; Golaud: Laurent
Naouri; Arkel: Willard White; GeneviËve: Felicity Palmer; Yniold: ChloÈ
Briot; Physician: Nicholas Brownlee; Narrator: Kate Burton; Conductor:
Esa-Pekka Salonen; Director: David Edwards; Lighting designer: Colin

image_description=Camilla Tilling [Photo courtesy of Harrison Parrott]
product_title=Extraordinary PellÈas et MÈlisande
product_by=Estelle Gilson
product_id=Camilla Tilling [Photo courtesy of Harrison Parrott]