Pelléas et Mélisande

Music by Claude Debussy
From the play by Maurice Maeterlinck
Metropolitan Opera
13 April 2000


Willard White
Dawn Upshaw
Nadine Denize
Robert Lloyd
Dwayne Croft
James Danner

James Levine

First unveiled in 1994 with Frederica von Stade and Dwayne Croft in the title roles, this production by Jonathan Miller--with sets and costumes by John Conklin and Clare Mitchell--is one of several currently floating around that places the action at the time of the opera's composition. That would make it turn-of-the-century (the "turn" here being from the 19th to the 20th Centuries) when we consider Debussy's life span and when he was working on this opera. Other examples include Handel's Xerxes, which was a great success at both Glimmerglass and the New York City Opera a few years ago and, currently ending a NYCO run, Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito. But more about that later.

It was a joy to be in the "House" to hear this work performed live. James Levine and his orchestra generally provided the singers with solid and exciting support except those few times when, carried away by his own zeal, he allowed his troops to drown them out--each and every singer--at one time or another. They were especially effective in performing the symphonically expressive music written by Debussy to fill and "explain" the symbolic silences of Maeterlinck's play and libretto, and in weaving a web of continuity between the disparate scenes that comprise both.

Let me first say that each and every performer both sang and acted his/her role with such vocal and dramatic acuity within the "symbolistic" framework of the piece, that we could not help but be concerned with each one's dramatic situation throughout. The character of Golaud has often been equated with Wagner's König Marke (Tristan und Isolde), the older man, usually a widower, who marries a much younger woman and loses her to a younger man in his circle. Bass-baritone Willard White, in his début role at the Met, was ideal, seeing the love develop between his half-brother and his young wife and trying to explain their actions as "childish games." That is, until he catches his brother wrapped in his wife's long tresses. After that he goes to pieces, forcing his young son, Yniold, to spy on his stepmother and uncle, and terrorizing the obviously pregnant Mélisande in the presence of his grandfather, King Arkel, and finally on her deathbed, insisting upon "grilling" his wife about her relationship with his brother. If his reactions to his frustration and utter helplessness occasionally result in brutal behavior toward those he loves, and ultimately make him a fratricide, Mr. White's Golaud always elicits our sympathy.

These days, Pelléas, originally a tenor role, is more often than not, sung by light lyric baritones. Because of his great vocal and histrionic talent, his slight build and his youthful good looks, baritone Dwayne Croft will look the part of Pelléas well into his 40s and 50s. But, as he matures, his voice naturally darkens. Recently, he has successfully sung Mozart's Count and Don Giovanni, Rossini's Figaro and Moussorgsky's Eugene Onegin. Both he and Willard White are listed on the Met roster as baritones, although in his program biography White is described as a bass-baritone. Despite Croft's most effective performance, I found the similarity of his voice colors and those of White rather jarring. In this role I would prefer a tenor with strong lower notes or an almost tenorial light baritone. I would like to hear a greater difference between these half-brothers.

Dawn Upshaw! Very fine actress; excellent singer with a well-focussed voice for both opera and some of the better show tunes and folk music. Her voice can reach every corner of the Met despite its not very large size. That's technique! On paper she should be an ideal Mélisande. For me, in the "House," she falls short of the mark. And I don't know that I can explain it satisfactorily, even for myself. Is it the stage director, who has her roaming across the stage like a zombie? Is it something in her personality that prevents her from communicating the character's mystery and mysticism? Or is it a combination of both? Or perhaps something else? In any event, even though I loved her Anne Truelove in The Rake's Progress, I find her Mélisande strangely unsatisfying.

The remainder of the cast sang and acted most appropriately. Special mention, however, should be made of young James Danner, the treble who sang Yniold, a role usually sung by a young mezzo or soprano. His voice sailed through Debussy's rich orchestration most of the time and his French diction was generally quite clear; better, in fact, than that of most adults I have heard in the role. Furthermore, the quality of his acting was on a par with the rest of the principals.

I must be honest and say (write) that I normally dislike updating the time period in which an opera was originally written to occur. A recent Der Rosenkavalier at NYCO placed in the 19th century with a Marschallin who smoked during her famous monologue at the end of Act I, was saved for me only by the high vocal and histrionic standards exhibited by its very fine cast. Likewise the above-named Rake's Progress, which placed the action in the 1920s. In addition, there was the entire Bayreuth Ring Cycle conducted by Pierre Boulez and telecast on PBS several years ago that moved the action into the period of the industrial revolution. It remains to be seen how I will react to the NYCO Tosca in fascist Italy next season. Unfortunately, I missed the PBS telecast this season.

That said, the costumes were quite handsome, especially the summer whites worn by Pelléas, Mélisande, and Geneviève in the earlier scenes. The women's gowns and full dress outfits for the men (black frock coats for the "evening" scenes) were also quite attractive. Architectural elements--walls, portals, doorways, windows--comprised the unit set which revolved on the stage's central turntable and, in various combinations, depict terraces and rooms inside and outside of Arkel's castle, and even woodland scenes (without more than one sickly tree in the first scene and no trees in the others, and grottos which look like either rooms in the castle or "cellars" on the same level.

Clearly, the scenery does not contribute to telling the story at hand, no matter how cleverly designed or juxtaposed. In fact, it serves merely to confuse. At the opera's opening, Mélisande is discovered weeping over what looks like an irregular space of missing tiles on a terrace with odd planks at one edge. It looks like a hole where rainwater may have gathered on a decrepit terrace. We see one rather sick-looking tree about fifteen feet away. This is supposed to be a pool in the middle of a thick and verdant forest. Golaud never sees her face, constantly addressing the back of her head, nor does she really look at him. Yet he is taken with her beauty and, when she asks what he is looking at, he replies, "Je regarde vos yeux. Vous ne fermez jamais les yeux." (I'm looking at your eyes. You never close your eyes.) Does this Golaud have x-ray vision?

Then, there is the question of Mélisande's long blond hair. In this production it is either auburn or a dull mousey brown. In scene 1 it hangs halfway down her back, but is obviously bunched together. When she first tours the castle with her new mother-in-law, she wears it piled high on her head covered by a stylish hat. Then, in the tower scene, when she is brushing her "longs cheveux" (long hair, as she describes it in the opera's ONLY aria), and it later falls out of the window, enveloping Pelléas and getting caught in the brambles growing up the tower wall--according to the stage directions for both play and libretto-- we see this formless brown mass fall to about a foot above Pelléas' reach, so he has to do a bit of pantomime to "wrap himself in her hair".   Pelléas remarks about the length if it as her hair cascades out of the tower window, to which she replies, "Oui, ils sont plus longs que moi." (Yes, it exceeds my height.)

The scene between Golaud and Pelléas in the old grotto--in this production, a cellar or storeroom in the castle--fails to convey the tension of the situation. It even contradicts Debussy's music by having them walk down a stairway while the music clearly indicates an upward journey toward light and clarity.

It was, however, a stroke of genius to have the scene in which Yniold loses his ball among the heavy rocks and encounters a shepherd leading his flock to slaughter, set as a nightmare the boy is having while tossing in bed, with the obviously pregnant Mélisande running in to comfort him prior to her final meeting with Pelléas.

With the exception of a performance I attended at the Paris Opéra Comique nearly forty years ago, with sets and costumes by the French playwright, poet, and filmmaker, Jean Cocteau, none of the productions I've seen of this opera in the United States has featured a Mélisande whose hair length exceeded her height. The diminutive Denise Duval, who portrayed the heroine in Paris, seemed to have no problem wearing what was probably a very heavy wig. I do wish that designers and directors in this country would start paying attention to the intentions of the composer and the playwright/librettist.  Oh well, I guess I'm in the minority.

-- Howard in Brooklyn

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2000 Howard Levin

  TOP of PAGE  
Opera Jamboree:
Welcome Page | Site Map
Website Design by:
Want your own website? Talk to me!