It is remarkable that Claude Debussy’s PELLEAS ET MELISANDE remains sui generis 121 years after the opera’s premiere. Despite aggressively modern works by Schoenberg, Tippett, Berio, and Glass, it remains, in its quiet way, the most radical of operas. A natural exhibitionist, traditional Opera thrives on showy arias and thrilling ensembles to animate both its sunny love stories and its tales of darker passions. PELLEAS is all indirection, ambiguity, and a paralyzing sense of forces beyond the control of its characters. It is an unnerving, strangely beautiful, and utterly unique masterpiece.
LA Opera’s production, which originated at Scottish Opera, is a tremendous improvement over the Peter Sellars’ Malibu beach house disappointment which was the company’s only other attempt at the work. Original director David McVicar strips away the vaguely Pre-Raphaelite costumes and colors of a conventional staging, setting the piece within the confines of a giant, decaying castle with the forest slowly encroaching on the inhabitants. Set and costume designer Rae Smith’s palette is mostly shades of gray, black, and white, leaving the audience as desperate as the characters for a spot of color or a shaft of light to penetrate the gloom.
It is to this home that Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen) returns with his new wife Melisande (Sydney Mancasola), a mysterious girl he found while lost in a forest. Who she is, where she comes from, and who gave her the crown she has lost in the stream is never explained. Melisande begins to spend time with Golaud’s half-brother Pelleas (Will Liverman), and their childlike delight in one another quickly grows into a physically innocent love. Golaud watches their growing attachment with a barely controlled jealousy that eventually explodes in a tragic act of violence that leaves Pelleas dead and Melisande longing for death. This may sound like your typical operatic love triangle, but Debussy presents it with muted colors and exquisite subtlety. There are no arias, no heroic declarations of love or vengeance; only a hazy, seemingly random series of enigmatic vignettes leading inexorably to disaster.
Current director for the production, Leah Housman, ably guides the cast in a compelling staging of the opera. Mancasola’s Melisande is a captivating and complex character with more agency than the typical child-woman characterization. A skilled singing actress, Mancasola finds a very personal take on Debussy’s bewitchingly mysterious heroine. Her voice is remarkably fluent in charting every nuance of the character with an almost supernaturally beautiful tone. Liverman’s somewhat nerdy Pelleas matches Mancasola with an intelligent and carefully crafted performance. His ravishingly sensual singing of the Tower scene might melt a glacier.
Typically, Golaud is relegated to skulking in the shadows after the first few scenes of the opera. But interpreting the opera through Golaud’s memories/imaginings shifts the dramatic emphasis. However, even in a more conventional staging, Ketelsen is too strong and authoritative a singing actor to blend into the background, and it is refreshing to see Golaud played by a performer who is as attractive as Pelleas. Ketlesen deftly charts the character’s conflicted emotional journey from love to betrayal. The production is also graced with an embarrassment of vocal riches as two operatic stars, Susan Graham and Ferruccio Furlanetto, perform the minor roles of Genevieve and Arkel. Kai Edgar makes his moments count as the young Yniold.
In any production of PELLEAS ET MELISANDE the orchestra becomes as much a character as the principals, often portraying hidden emotions the lost souls onstage cannot voice. Maestro James Conlon rises to the challenge with his customary style, honing the orchestra with a hypnotic clarity that reveals the breathtaking depth of Debussy’s visionary score.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion March 25 – April 16 2023 laopera.org