at Lyric Opera

The idea that Debussy was rebelling against Wagnerian domination of music has been uttered so many times that it seems almost a mantra of music commentators. Yet an examination of his masterwork and only opera, Pelleas et Melisande, seems to indicate that his rebellion was futile. This work adheres to the textbook Wagnerian aesthetic more closely than any of Wagner’s own works, with the possible exception of Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde. Despite his announced opposition to operatic conventions, even Wagner knew when to depart from his theoretical ramblings and throw in an operatic element such as a chorus or a duet. And despite Wagner’s contention that drama was primary in his works, even Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde give pride of place to the music rather than the words of the story. Pelleas is a truly seamless music drama, with the look and feel of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play and the music grafted on.

Maeterlinck’s play is heavy on symbolism but light on the blood-and-thunder action so often thought to be the essence of grand opera. The text was adapted by the composer, but retains the suggestive vagueness of the play, even in the surtitle translations. Debussy first became acquainted with the play in the early 1890s, and by 1895 the first draft was complete, though it would not premiere until 1902. The French audience gave the work the contemptuous reception that seems to have been de rigueur for works, including Carmen and The Rite of Spring, making their first appearance in Paris between about 1850 and 1920. A proper scandal almost seems to have been a guarantee of an enduring place in the repertory.

Like most of Wagner’s operas, Pelleas is set in a mythical land, the kingdom of Allemonde. While hunting, Prince Golaud becomes lost in a forest and discovers the distraught Melisande, scarcely more than a child, weeping by a pool. Though she cannot or will not give any accounting of herself, Golaud eventually persuades her to follow him. Later he marries her and sends a letter to his half brother Pelleas, asking him to beg their grandfather, King Arkel, to forgive Golaud for ignoring his wishes and not pursuing some diplomatic advantage in making his marriage. Golaud is allowed to return home and gradually, through a series of seemingly innocent incidents, becomes jealous of Pelleas and pressures him to leave the country. When Golaud discovers Pelleas and Melisande in a tender adieu, he murders him. Soon Melisande, having given birth to a daughter, is at death’s door. The remorseful but still madly jealous Golaud promises her forgiveness if she will only confess to infidelity. She dies without admitting anything, and Golaud is left uncertain of his wife’s guilt.

The basic love triangle is the same one seen in many other operas–older man, young wife, and younger rival (Tristan und Isolde, Pagliacci, Il tabarro). But the treatment is dreamlike, and the elliptical quality of the libretto never allows us to be sure there’s any guilty secret to be hidden.

Musically the Lyric’s show was impeccable. Baritone Victor Braun, playing the jealous Golaud, gave a strikingly dramatic and vocally smooth performance. The only flaw was that he was allowed to appear with his own steel gray hair, rendering ludicrous lines in the text that indicate Golaud is probably just barely 30 and just showing a couple strands of gray. These are the penalties associated with surtitles.

At the top of the show there was the normal intake of breath when Danny Newman appeared at the footlights with one of his potentially disappointing messages. But it was bad news, good news. The bad news was that Teresa Stratas was too ill to perform. The good news was that soprano Faith Esham was stepping into her place. The relatively slight Esham, whose fine technique let her sweet soprano fill the auditorium, made a somewhat less ethereal Melisande than is usually heard. Jerry Hadley’s youthful-sounding tenor was an excellent choice for the role of Pelleas. His demeanor as the tragic young lover was ideal, and he managed to shrug off the titters that ran around the audience as he tried to entangle Melisande’s long hair in nonexistent tree branches. Dimitri Kavrakos’s bass continues to darken with age (a good thing for a bass) and now fills the opera house effortlessly. His meager histrionic ability was not put to any severe tests since his character was confined to a wheelchair. Lucy Tamez Creech, as the voice of Yniold, achieved a thin childlike sound almost devoid of vibrato.

A welcome feature of the Lyric’s artistic roster this year is the strength of the guest conductors. With Zubin Mehta in Das Rheingold, Dennis Russell Davies in McTeague, and Leonard Slatkin in Elektra, Lyric is not putting up second-raters. James Conlon is right at home in this company, guiding the Lyric orchestra through Debussy’s translucent score with style and precision. One other aspect of the opening-night performance was reminiscent of Wagner–the reverence accorded the music. None of the three acts began with the customary polite applause for the entrance of the conductor. Instead, the music seemed to well up as an elemental force from the partially covered pit, in a slight echo of the temple of Bayreuth during a Parsifal performance.

The weak links in this production are in the direction, set design, and costuming. The set by Robert Israel is far too cluttered and, to put it charitably, a restatement of shopworn Jean-Pierre Ponelle ideas. The costumes too seem strikingly similar to Ponelle’s ideas for his 1973 Munich production of this work, right down to the 19th-century wheelchair for the aged King Arkel. It’s always a mistake to try to tie operas that take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away” to a specific nonmythic time period. The sets loaned by the Met to the 1972 Lyric production were much better suited to the task of conveying the dreamy timelessness of this work.

The direction by Frank Galati was usually adequate, though the double casting of Creech as the voice of Yniold and Joel Eng as Yniold himself smacked of self-conscious artsiness. The rape of Melisande by Golaud added by Galati to the third act was unspeakably brutal and did literal and metaphorical violence to the spirit of the work.

A final amusing note: the program states that “Pelleas et Melisande is the European work chosen to represent Lyric’s “Toward the 21st Century’ artistic initiative in the 1992-93 season,” a series intended to highlight contemporary or unjustly neglected works. Considering that it was completed in 1895, premiered a scant 16 months into the 20th century, and has been in the repertory ever since, Pelleas hardly fits.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.