Discourses in Music: Volume 2 Number 1 (Fall 2000)

Pelléas et Mélisande: The Canadian Opera Company's Groundbreaking Operatic Production

In the course of a typical North American opera season, one notices productions whose appeal to the audience can be understood, in the most pragmatic terms through the number of tickets sold. Popular repertoire is used to replenish the company coffers while building an audience, in order that other productions can be created. An opera company struggling for support would produce only popular works, while companies with any pretension to art would have in their repertoire, at least some works that challenge an audience's tastes rather than pandering to them. The best indicator of a company's artistic health are the works they produce that are outside the mainstream. At such moments one measures not only the nerve shown in programming without regard for box office potential, but more fundamentally, the true creative scope of its artists. If the less conventional and difficult operas are done well enough, word spreads abroad, and helps not only build the company's international profile, but its confidence at home. To close out the Spring 2000 Canadian Opera Company (COC)season in Toronto, in addition to an uninspiring but solidly interpreted La Bohème designed to fill seats at the Hummingbird Centre, the COC offered the challenging Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy's only opera. Based on the evidence of this production, the COC is very healthy indeed.

The fundamental difficulty Pelléas poses is as a direct result of its uniqueness. While the libretto contains the operatic staples-jealousy, love and murder-- Debussy's score does not deliver the expected payoff in arias, ensembles or divertissements. Although it is commonly believed that the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck wrote the libretto, in fact, he wrote a play from which Debussy drew the libretto. Debussy's setting of the opera parallels the original play so well that it seems to disdain an audience at all, in keeping with the reticent aesthetic of the symbolists. The objective of symbolism is to hint at hidden meanings, by means of understatement. It is a mistake to speak of this opera as impressionism-as the COC's publicity did-- and just as wrong to miss the dark and nasty side of this opera. The opera is unquestionably one of the great masterworks of operatic literature: provided one is willing to give it its due, embracing the work with all its quirks. It cannot be sung, played or acted like other operas, without doing violence to that unique original.

For an opera aficionado, the most noteworthy element about any production is its sound. In this production, there is both good and bad news, depending upon your perspective. Artistic Director and chief conductor Richard Bradshaw has been building an extraordinary orchestra over the last few years, recruiting so many outstanding young players that one could make the case that his ensemble is the best one currently playing in Toronto. In other recent productions, such as the Stravinsky program of two years ago, the orchestra has been encouraged to pump out such a big sound that singers were covered: an effect that seems intentional. The good news, at least in the Debussy, is that the orchestra plays wonderfully. The singers are audible, something which is hard to imagine, without electronic enhancement, considering that they sometimes sing in an intimate whisper. For those taking a purist's position against any sort of electronic enhancement or amplification, the subtle sound design for this production is bad news indeed. Nevertheless the amplification for this production has been done so discretely that it does not undermine the musicality of the performance. There is, however another sort of purist position that must rejoice in the sensitivity with which the vocal line was privileged in this production.

Debussy's vocal writing in Pelléas is both its blessing and its curse. While the singers are able to express themselves in phrases written to correspond closely to the spoken rhythm of the words, they must do so without the standard toolkit of the opera singer, namely the aria, the big finale, or even the occasional sparkling high note. In other words, this opera calls for singing actors, and does nothing to conceal the possible shortcomings of its performers. Although it was originally premiered in the smaller house at the Opéra Comique, it may be that Pelléas can only now find its proper audience through the intimacy of such media as film or video, or with the assistance of amplification, as in Toronto's Hummingbird Centre.

Perhaps the single most memorable element of this production comes from Set Designer Dany Lyne. Lyne's images impose a very specific reading upon the text, and upon Director Nick Muni. This should not be taken as an indictment, considering how her design penetrates to the heart of the libretto, elucidating the class structure at the core of the work. In her reading, Golaud's dynasty is exploiting a diseased landscape: their castle that sits upon the kingdom of Allemonde like a bridge. One is reminded of the Gardiner Expressway that sits atop the Toronto waterfront. Please note, however, that this interpretation is not some sort of imposition upon the text, but a lucid reading of perhaps the first modern libretto to include references to starving peasants. Ecology figures prominently in this opera, from Golaud's complaints about dying peasants, to the fetid pool under the castle.

Lyne's vertical imposition upon the stage—and upon Muni and his cast—creates the greatest single tension in the opera. Pelléas is consigned to the world under that bridge, perhaps a bit arbitrarily, in conforming to the design, but fully in accord with his status as a second-class citizen throughout the opera. The fact that Mélisande is from a world above is suggested in the scene in which her hair drapes down to the lower level, or when she loses her wedding ring. Until the two finally choose to meet on the same plane in the fourth act, this physical separation generates an enormous amount of tension with Pelléas, whose inability to reach her parallels his frustrated social place as her brother-in-law.

Assigning credit for the interpretation is difficult, considering that in addition to designer Lyne and director Muni, there are also the respective interpreters of the roles to be considered as well. The principals -- Elzbieta Szmytka's Mélisande, Jean-François Lapointe's Pelléas, and Monte Pederson's Golaud are visually believable. Szmytka's short stature makes it believable that she would call Pederson's Golaud a giant in the first scene. The ages of all three, for once, seem correct, as Pederson does not so much seem old, as older than his wife and brother, looking for all the world like a man undergoing a mid-life crisis. The tension between the three works well, even if their approaches do not seem to be from the same opera. While Pederson brings an intensity that might seem appropriate for Dr Schoen or Amfortas, the other two are more underplayed in a manner that would surely have pleased Debussy. Lapointe comes closest to making the text work transparently, without super-imposing his own performer's ego. In contrast, Szmytka's performance contains moments of flamboyance bordering on the outlandish. In the scene when her hair is understood to be falling out the window, Muni had her perform circus-like acrobatics in her window, erasing the subtlety of that moment. On the other hand, Muni sometimes honoured the reticent symbolist style. In the final scene, for example, he allowed Pelléas's dead body to appear below the bridge, where Mélisande's body had descended with her death: a moment I would have liked a great deal more, had the descending piece of the set not landed with a terrifying crash. In other places, such as the beginning of the second scene, Muni inserted interesting stage business, in the interest of deepening the subtext, but business that is completely out of place in symbolist drama.

Notwithstanding the moments where the drama fails, Bradshaw deserves credit, both as conductor for leading a powerfully taut reading of Debussy's score, with a cast of exceptional commitment, and as the Artistic Director who chose to assemble the talent for this presentation. As a faithful opera-goer, I look forward to coming seasons with great enthusiasm because of what I saw and heard, certain that this company can achieve great things.

-Leslie Barcza

Leslie Barcza is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Centre for Study of Drama, at the University of Toronto. His thesis concerns the relationship between the words and the music of Pelléas et Mélisande.