Pelléas and Mélisande dazzles the stage and mind at Opera Theatre St. Louis
Pelléas and Mélisande is a confounding opera. While it presents a simple story of love, passion and jealousy, it also remains a conundrum, because it doesn’t really answer any of the questions raised by its characters.
But the joy of Opera Theatre St. Louis‘ production of Pelléas and Mélisande lies in both the presentation and the personal interpretation of the work by the audience.
Debussy’s opera is part of the French Symbolist movement that began in 1885. This movement was pervasive in Europe and emphasized the use of symbols and images for meanings while focusing on the esoteric and minimal in presentation. It also rejected traditional ideas of realism in the narrative and score, allowing the audience to develop its own interpretations and fill in its own gaps of perception for the work. Debussy’s musical works, including this opera, have been likened to “musical impressionism,” although the composer himself intensely disliked this notion.
This tricky opera opens in a forest where Prince Golaud comes across a beautiful, mysterious and terrified young woman named Mélisande. Golaud notices that she has lost a crown in a spring. Although smitten, her pleas to ignore it puzzle Golaud. Nonetheless he marries her and brings her back to a once regal castle owned by his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. This is where the audience encounters the first of many unanswered questions about the back-story of these characters, which sets the tone of the production.
Mélisande soon discovers that the palace is place of melancholy and overwhelming apprehension. It is ancient, gloomy and dark. To make things worse, the royal family is seriously dysfunctional and distant. The King, who has taken ill, inexplicably carries a large box around with him.
Although Mélisande and Golaud are both lost souls, it is his brother Pelléas who develops an intensely mysterious relationship with Mélisande. Mélisande’s peculiar relationship with Pelléas infuriates the covetous Golaud who is driven to obsession to discover the nature of their relationship. Unhinged with jealousy Golaud takes measures into his own hands to discover any shred of knowledge about the relationship between Pelléas and Mélisande.
His paranoia reaches a fever pitch when he employs his son Yniold, to spy on the couple.
An emotionally drained Pelléas decides to leave the castle and arranges to meet Mélisande one final time before his departure. This intense meeting leads to a passionate exchange whereby they confess their love for one another. Unbeknownst to them, the wily Golaud eavesdrops on their conversation and in a fit of rage rushes out of hiding and kills his brother. Tragedy strikes again when Mélisande dies after childbirth. As she dies Golaud stays with Mélisande, pleading with her to divulge the truth.
For this production of Pelléas and Mélisande, Debussy’s central themes of love and jealousy has been intensified. Succinctly put, this is an opera where the core characters are not really well. Each of them is unsympathetic, flawed and damaged. They all have their own dark secrets, forever locked in the imagination of the audience. Thus Pelléas and Mélisande is a riddle that answers fewer questions than it asks.
Director David Alden has done wonders with his interpretation of Pelléas and Mélisande, an opera that has frustrated directors for over a century. Although certain aspects of the plot are similar to Salome, there are enough empty spaces that allow plenty of room for speculation and interpretation. Debussy purposely made this opera loose enough for any director to stamp his or her own identity on it.
Alden has certainly done this. He and Opera Theatre St. Louis have taken a scaled down version of Debussy’s five acts and compressed them into two tantalizingly forceful acts. Another change is that the role of Yniold has been expanded upon which helps drive much of the drama in the late second act.
Alden very carefully has used a sparse set with great effect. There is a sense of foreboding and loss in the stage presentation created by skillfully using dark light and shadows. A drab-colored, almost barren set has been used by Alden to emphasize the tension and trauma of the leads. Draping the opera in layers of innuendo and uncertainty counteracts the traditional format of operatic presentation.
Corinne Winters is mesmerizing as Mélisande. She gives the character a revolving sense of instability throughout the performance that ranges from deeply melancholic and mentally unstable to moments of tenderness and fear. Her stage presence here allows her to command
the stage and while keeping the audience on its toes guessing as to what exactly she is up to.
Gregory Dahl is terrifically unhinged as Golaud. His grand downward spiral into madness is played to perfection with an authoritative performance. He brings a rough and raw sense of paranoia and delirium to Golaud that propels the tension in the opera. His baritone voice balances perfectly with Winters’ to create a dynamic onstage force. Dahl makes the difficult task of letting Golaud evolve from a lost soul into a sinister and cunning antagonist look easy.
Liam Bonner, debuting with OTSL with his performance, is great as Pelléas. He brings a sense of mystique to the role that leaves the audience somewhat uneasy since he never clearly divulges what it is that makes this guy tick. His scenes with Winters are incredibly intense and he plays well off of her. Like Dahl he spends a lot of the opera coming and going into the dark shadows. He and Dahl both manage to use this to their advantage to convey mental instability however, the big difference is that Bonner uses the shadows to shroud his character in sadness and mystery while Dahl uses it to bring out his suspicious rage. With his imagining of Pelléas, Bonner proves he is a performer to keep an eye out for in for future productions.
The best way to enjoy Opera Theatre St. Louis’ production of Pelléas and Mélisande is to take it all in and not really think about the symbolism or deeper questions about the lead characters until after the production ends. It’s an opera that will stick with you after you see it, creating pleasure as you put the pieces together yourself.
The production is minimalist but staged and executed brilliantly by an ensemble that makes the story gripping and epic. The score is tailor made for the production and frames the story perfectly.
Pelléas and Mélisande is not the easiest opera to understand. A clear-cut story with fleshed-out characters is nonexistent and replaced with the theater of the mind of the audience who is treated with respect by the production and allowed to sort it out in its own way. Nonetheless it is an amazing achievement of operatic drama that should not be missed.
Opera Theatre St. Louis presents Pelléas and Mélisande at the Loretto-Hilton Center. For more information visit Opera Theatre St. Louis.
Saturday, June 11, 8 p.m.
Tuesday, June 14, 1 p.m.
Thursday, June 16, 8 p.m.
Friday, June 24, 8 p.m.