In the summer of 1901, near the end of his career, Claude Debussy encountered the one and only critic he ever truly respected. Quoted at length in La Revue Blanche, an influential arts journal made famous by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s bold covers, a prickly commentator by the name of Monsieur Croche took exception to what he regarded as the overly mannered, artificial traditions of Western music. As one of the magazine’s featured contributors, Debussy faithfully reported every word of his conversation with the testy provocateur.
“To see the sun rise is more profitable than to hear the Pastoral Symphony,” Croche proclaimed.
No one alert to the local Parisian avant-garde scene had the slightest doubt that Monsieur Croche and the composer were one and the same person.
Part radical, part humanist, Debussy’s dual personas leave lasting impressions on his music perhaps nowhere more evident than on his sole opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. Ephemeral and elusive, the flowing, free-form psychodrama launched musical theatre on an entirely original course into the unsounded depths of the early twentieth century.
Against the Grain Theatre, Toronto’s innovative vocal arts co-op, has chosen to present Debussy’s visionary masterpiece wrapped in fantasy and flora. Staged plein air as befitting its Impressionist roots in the Canadian Opera Company’s ivy-draped Tanenbaum Gardens courtyard, director Joel Ivany evokes the enigmatic work’s fragile, enclosed world, a landscape of light and shadow, dream-like and evanescent. This is a production framed not so much by elaborate stagecraft as by the shimmering emotional values reflected in Pelléas et Mélisande’s text and score.
Drawing on the then sensational play of the same name by Belgian poet and dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, Debussy acted as his own librettist refining the fevered symbolist’s story of obsession and loss to create an austere pseudo-myth unbounded by time.
A terrified princess, Mélisande, has lost her way in the forest. A passing huntsman, Prince Golaud, discovers her cowering at the edge of a pond. All that can be learned is that she has been the victim of savage abuse.
A room in Golaud’s family castle. His mother, Geneviève, reads aloud a letter he has written to his half-brother, Pelléas. The prince has married the mysterious young woman. Golaud’s grandfather, King Arkel frowns. He need not have feared his judgment. His grandson, recently bereaved, deserves happiness. Pelléas is to light a lamp in the tower signaling all is well for his return.
In the tangled castle gardens. Geneviève bids Mélisande welcome. Pelléas joins them. The three watch as the great ship that bore Golaud and his new bride home sails off into the distance.
Pelléas and Mélisande seek relief from the heat of the day at the edge of a fountain. Mélisande absentmindedly plays catch with the ring Golaud gave her, accidentally dropping it into the deep, dark water. She fears she will be unable to explain her loss.
Golaud has been badly injured in a bizarre riding accident. Although unaware of the timing, his horse flung him from the saddle the moment Mélisande lost her ring. Mélisande tends to his injuries. Golaud sees that her wedding band is missing. Unable to bring herself to tell the truth, Mélisande claims she lost it in a cave by the sea. Golaud is annoyed. She must return with Pelléas and search for it.
Pelléas leads Mélisande into the cave, mindful she may be asked to describe it later. It is a horrific place, filled with starving beggars.
Pelléas and Mélisande re-encounter each other at the castle tower. Mélisande leans out to touch his hand from a window. Her long loose hair falls in a soft cascade, becoming entangled in brush below. Pelléas struggles to free it. Golaud chances by and scolds them for being childish. Never more, he warns Pelléas, is he to see his wife. Her health is delicate and soon she may give birth.
One evening, consumed by suspicion, Golaud spies on Mélisande. Lifting aloft his young son Yniold, offspring of his first marriage, to peer through a high candlelit window, he asks the child what he sees. Pelléas is with Mélisande, Yniold reports with a whimper, too frightened to divulge more details.
Arkel visits Mélisande, her growing unhappiness sadly all too clear to him. Golaud bursts into the room. Aflame with jealousy, he viciously attacks her.
Alone in the dead of night at the fountain where first they spoke, Pelléas and Mélisande confess their love. Golaud springs from the shadows, killing Pelléas with his sword.
In a bedchamber in the castle. Mélisande has given birth to a daughter. Arkel senses death in the room. Golaud, overcome with remorse, begs for her forgiveness. Mélisande quietly consents. When pressed, she divulges her love for Pelléas, assuring him their bond had always been innocent. Suddenly a chill sweeps through her. She dies. Arkel cradles her infant in his arms.
Grief and pain form recurring notes, sounded singly or as chords, in this strange, haunted tale. Characters each bear their share of psychic scars. A tense anxious air, indefinable, almost supernatural fills the gaps between reality and hallucination.
The full force of Debussy and Maeterlinck’s fascination with the gothic is starkly conveyed throughout Pelléas et Mélisande. It is surely no coincidence that Against the Grain has summoned back set designer Camelia Koo and lighting director Jason Hand, guiding forces in the company’s acclaimed 2012 The Turn of the Screw, to work their moody magic.
Conjuring a persistent sense of the ominous, director Ivany and crew achieve vivid results in this singularly chilling Pelléas et Mélisande. Venue, as in past AtG productions, powers much of the staging and atmosphere. Singer actors glide like apparitions through the Tanenbaum Centre’s secret garden absorbed by walls of black wrought iron and Victorian brick. Intersecting rows of imported stepping stones trace a symbolic maze of precarious, predestined paths. The white noise of downtown Toronto, sirens, the buzz of low-flying aircraft, the constant rush of traffic adds to the texture of surrealism and surprise.
Rhythmically and harmonically, Debussy wanders in and out of a tonal framework almost entirely of his own invention. The power of the unconscious, an entirely new notion in Debussy’s day, underscores virtually every measure of his score. AtG’s gifted cast of artists faithfully illuminates it.
Singing the role of Mélisande, soprano Miriam Khalil gently floats her clear, buoyant voice on the ebb and flow of Debussy’s wistful music, lovingly capturing the vulnerability and grace of the ethereal princess. Her rendition of Melisande’s enchanting semi a cappella air Mes longs cheveux descendent (“My long hair falls down”), one of the few aria-flavoured solos in an opera built almost entirely on speech-inflected recitative, is exquisitely beautiful.
High note-friendly baritone, Etienne Dupuis is an engaging Pelléas, shy and sensitive, his vocal stylings open and direct. Scenes with Khalil are touchingly tender. Dupuis’ first tentative, fumbling advances to Mélisande in the playful Act III fountain scene are charmingly human.
As Mélisande’s cruel, self-tormented husband, Prince Golaud, baritone Gregory Dahl creates a character as brawny and domineering as he is lamentable. This is a performance of enormous theatrical power delivered with unstinting intensity, his singing a broad rugged landscape ablaze with colour. Compassionate, repressed, guilt-ridden, Dahl commands, pathetic and terrifying all at the same time.
Bass Alain Coulombe appears as King Arkel in a moving, profoundly sympathetic portrayal of the frail, world-weary old king singing with rich, heart-melting poignancy.
Mezzo Megan Latham is a distinguished Geneviève, processing in and out of her limited yet pivotal appearances with supreme elegance and poise. Soprano Andrea Núñez is a persuasively child-like Yniold, particularly convincing in the disquieting spy scene with Golaud.
Guest music director Julien LeBlanc contributes fine piano accompaniment, playing with splendid feeling and authenticity, translucent, almost weightless in placid moments, orchestrally evocative in stormy, unbridled scenes. Pelléas et Mélisande’s five distinct mini-symphonic interludes are grippingly rendered. LeBlanc, a specialist in French repertoire is an artist of sweeping dimensions. Debussy, a pianist of no small accomplishment himself, would unquestionably agree.
Begun at dusk, ended in darkness, Against the Grain Theatre’s resonant Pelléas et Mélisande lights up the night with shimmering imagination and luminous artistry. This magical production glows in memory. It refuses to fade.