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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Opera at Random: Pelléas et Mélisande

A walk in the dark woods with Claude Debussy.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A scene from the (rather beautiful) Robert Wilson staging of
Pelléas et Mélisande from the Opera de Paris. Photo courtesy medici.tv.
Like the forests of Allemonde, Superconductor was dark for the last week as I rested, recharged and figured out what direction I want to take this blog in next. Today, I borrowed an idea from the composer John Cage: indeterminacy. Using the shuffle function on my old 160GB iPod Classic to decide which composer I'm writing about. And the winner is: Claude Debussy and his lone opera: Pelléas et Mélisande.

My Pod is currently playing the 1978 Herbert von Karajan recording of Pelléas et Mélisande. This remains one of the most challenging in the repertory for singers, musicians and yes, the audience. It is a dream-like setting of Maurice Maeterlinck's play of the same name, a fairy tale where Prince Charming turns out to be an abusive husband, and where the hints, allegories and things left unsaid sometimes outweigh what little action there is onstage.

I first cottoned onto Pélleas in Boston, at a record store. "Try this," the owner suggested, eager to flog off a Decca Charles Dutoit recording that was sticking stubbornly to the shelf. "You like Parsifal, right?"

I did. I listened to a bit. And then I bought that recording, the first of many that I still own. (I am currently listening to the EMI-Karajan set as I write this, so we'll touch on its qualities in a moment.) In fact I've owned a number of Pelléas recordings: the aforementioned Dutoit and Karajan, the Pierre Boulez recording made in London (good conducting, OK cast), and ones by Armin Jordan and Claudio Abbado. The last, sunk by Maria Ewing's miscasting as Mélisande was notable chiefly for its packaging, which had a kind of 3-D cutout of the lovers looking down into the well where Mélisande drops her wedding ring.

As for the Karajan recording: it is very unconventional, with a focus on orchestral color and the conductor's mania for detail in every bar. The Berliners are at the peak of their powers. The leads are Richard Stilwell (a characterful tenor I've never heard anywhere else), Frederica von Stade and José van Dam, a tragic and compelling Golaud. In a bit of luxury casting, bass Ruggerio Raimondi sings Arkel. A studio product, the set uses some of the old Decca-style  effects (an added echo for the cistern scene, a spooky acoustic for the cave) but the effects never hurt the momentum of the performance. Karajan revels in the dark colors in the later half of the score, bringing out

Despite Karajan's taste for Wagnerism, Pelléas is a very different opera from Wagner and represents Debussy's attempt to do anything else other than copy the Bayreuth style. This forced him to break new ground. He also chose a nebulous subject, a fairy tale about an unconventional, mysterious princess whose innocent love for her brother-in-law draws her husband to the edge of a murderous cliff. Yes, Golaud kills Pelléas, but it is Mélisande who suffers, dying in childbirth in the opera's enigmatic final scene.

There are some parallels to Wagner's last work. Both operas have a misty, medieval setting. Parsifal takes place in a landscape "with the character of Gothic Spain", not an actual place. Pelléas is set in the fairy kingdom of Allemonde (all-world) ruled by the blind and elderly Arkel. (He survives the opera.) It is a strange, labyrinthine opera, with scenes in a dark cave, at a series of mysterious wells, and with symbolic objects that challenge any stage director.

Debussy would roll his eyes at this assessment, but there  are glimmers of Wagnerian transitions in the score of Pélleas et Mélisande. There is even a direct quote from the Transformation Music from Act I of Parsifal, slipped in between the first two scenes. However, this opera is unique and very much its own musical world.  The orchestra takes Wagner's shadowy impressions of the Grail forest and smears them into a blurry watercolor, using hints of string and oboe, very little percussion and only a few moments above mezzo forte in the course of five acts.

There are no arias and only occasional appearances by the chorus. The characters' lines are sung parlando in a series of accompanied recitatives and they only rarely burst into lyrical flight. Also, there aren't any concert excerpts or memorable tunes, though some bold conductors give a program of all the orchestral interludes from the opera as a concert piece. (Natalie Dessay also sang a bit of Mélisande's song from Act III as a Carnegie Hall encore this year.) Like the mysterious kingdom it depicts, Pélleas is all about the state of mind, both of the triangle of characters at the opera's center and of the listener who is absorbed in the work and lost in its musical forest.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.