Two weeks ago I caught Esa-Pekka Salonen’s semi-staged production of Pelléas and Mélisande at Disney Hall, and this Wednesday I saw L.A. Opera’s “silent movie” Magic Flute.
Pelléas should be unbearable—and sometimes it is. A Chopin Nocturne … extended for three hours?!
Our seats were just above stage left, so we looked at the backs of the singers for most of the performance. This was terrible because they were all good actors, and performed their singing cleverly despite the physical limitations of the stage. But we were immersed in the orchestra. That made up for it. Three hours inhaling intoxicating aromas. In recordings you’re struck by the big, swelling tutti passages—the moments when the opera sounds like La Mer. I had always felt the best thing about the piece were the instrumental interludes between acts. But sitting with the musicians made clear that Debussy’s real achievement is creating moments when an a voice described a line in concert with a scrap of melody from a single viola, a shimmering fade of a chime, a reverberating pluck of a harp string.
Ravishment, refinement, aromas, intoxication … yeah, yeah, yeah. But there’s also a severe austerity at work. Debussy knows that too much of a good thing would cloy. He holds back. Most of the time the music avoids rapture, and instead evokes feelings of hesitation and uncertainty. There’s only a handful of “operatic” moments, when the singers let it rip.
The story also deliberately frustrates the expectation of action. “It’s about shadows,” one of our party said afterwards, and that’s exactly it. Shadows of leaves and trees evoked by the orchestra, and characters frightened by shadows. They are frightened, but they also cling to them with affection, “Ah! How beautiful it is in the shadows! …” as Pelléas exclaims rapturously. It’s a decent summary of the whole opera.
Semi-staged is better than nothing at all, but I was left with the feeling that I didn’t get the full experience. After all, a lot of its power is due to Maeterlinck’s play, and you can’t pretend that scenes like Pelléas caressing Mélisande’s hair, or Golaud hoisting Yniold up to spy into her bedroom are just pretexts for the music. They sound like they can be breathtakingly disturbing. Hopefully, someday, I will get the chance to see what these scenes really can do.
The lovers provide the pretext for the most ravishing music, but in the end the opera is dominated by Golaud. He’s a Pre-Raphaelite/Symbolist Alexei Karenin. In the last act, on Mélisande’s deathbed, he almost grows up. But at the final moment he relapses into being a stupid, spoiled bully—clamoring to know the “facts” of Mélisande’s relationship with Pelléas. As if that will help him. Maeterlinck is merciless. Laurent Naouri went straight for the horribleness of it, but not before stopping the show with Golaud’s final Hispanic-Sephardic-Arabic cantillation, “Mélisande, as-tu pitié de moi comme j'ai pitié de toi?”
All the singers managed to act out their parts, even within the limited space available.
As usual with an Esa-Pekka concert, all the soloists were superb musicians: Camilla Tilling (Mélisande), Stéphane Degout (Pelléas), and Willard White (Arkel). Felicity Palmer managed to make the unpromising scene when Genevieve reads a letter out loud into a dramatic and lyric high point. Dashing Hadleigh Adams, stuck with the worst role in all of opera—The Shepherd, who utters eleven syllables in Act 4—managed to make an impression with his bow, letting his long hair fall forward, à la Mélisande.
It would have been hard to go wrong, I suppose. It’s Mozart, after all. And the music of The Magic Flute defines a space in which it is possible to encounter joy and hope, even now. The musical aspect of last Wednesday’s performance was perfect, with singers at ease with both the decorative and dramatic work, amplified by Jimmy Conlon’s orchestra, which was delicate, precise or commanding as needed.
I suppose it’s possible to screw up The Magic Flute. But that didn’t happen here because the designers of this production— Barrie Kosky, Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt—obviously sat down and read the libretto with the intention of inventing ways of presenting the drama as vividly as possible. This is not a popular or common approach. The result was a hilarious romp, with one breathtaking tableau after another. Even the mis-steps were executed with such skill they were impressive.
And it was all done with a big screen with six doors: no sets or props. Other than costumes, the visual part of the show was entirely video projections and lighting. Not everything was beautiful; and there was no straining after uniformity of visual style. The designers pillaged Edward Gorey, Eduardo Paolozzi, Keith Haring, Takashi Murakami, et al, but especially modeled their work after silent movie graphics from a century ago. The silent movie allusion was extended by the introduction of a hint of dust, dirt and flicker in the spotlights—which were all interesting, subtly discriminated colors.
This appeared most spectacularly in the title cards that replaced the episodes of music-less, spoken dialogue. These bits are a nuisance. They’re boring and ridiculous in the wrong way. Title cards eliminated the problem entirely, and conveyed the necessary plot information more elegantly. This seems a trick that would work for all such episodes in opera. (I hope they are planning to do something like it in L.A. Opera’s upcoming Abduction from the Seraglio.)
There were so many scenes that are already fixed in my mind as definitive presentations: The three ladies sending their cartoon hearts down to sleeping Tamino at the beginning, and near the end, Tamino descending an elevator down into the depths of the earth for the trial by fire.
I think Pamina got the best tableaux: her being threated by Monostatos’s dogs, escaping across the rooftops with Papageno, bemoaning her lost love in a garden, soaring up in a sky of butterflies with the three boys. …
You can get some sense of it from the videos, but this truly was one of those things that you had to see in person, live, and in full scale.
There was one thing I didn’t like at all: Why did the Queen of the Night first appear as a terrifying tarantula, zapping Tamino with lightning bolts? Didn’t that give the game away, dramatically? Isn’t she supposed to be sympathetic at first, only gradually revealed as a villain? Why deprive the audience of the pleasure of discovering this on their own?
[Top image: Mary Garden, the first Mélisande, 1902]