A Golden Operatoonity Post*
Imagine a fairy tale with the backdrop of the most evocative Impressionist paintings you can conceive, pierced by the unrelenting darkness of a Poe story. If you can imagine such a tale set to Debussy’s music, you may begin to understand the appeal of the opera Pelléas et Mélisande.
What elements do you think of when you consider your favorite Impressionist painters? Water, light, sunlight on water, veiled color, glimpses of pure color, unadorned beauty in nature, adorned beauty in the human form?
Now, what comes to mind when you think of Poe’s writing? Unrelenting, dark romanticism (“Annabel Lee“), sociopathy (“The Cask of Amontillado“), death (‘The City in the Sea”), descent into madness (“The Raven,” “The Telltale Heart“)?
All of these combine, to breathtaking effect, in Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera in five acts by Claude Debussy, based on the earlier play by Maeterlinck, a dramatic fairy tale, which jumped to my attention last week, when a commenter mentioned Pelléas et Mélisande as, “The opera I cherish the most.”
First, I’m fond of fairy tales on the simplest level. But I’m enamored of them when they are infused with something–it could be humor (The Princess Bride) or symbolism (Pelléas et Mélisande) that breathes freshness into them, inflating them into something you experience. It was Maeterlink who elevated the fairy tale, and Debussy who honored Maeterlink‘s vision with a score that soars and plunges, that is, as you would expect, lush but also heart-piercingly bleak.
Paul England cites it as one of fifty favorite operas in his book of the same name. Now that I’ve read about the opera and seen and heard portions of it–YouTube can be a godsend (no joke)–I can’t imagine contemporary composers like Stephen Sondheim not having been influenced by this opera. Consider Sweeney Todd, which has musically and thematically some of the same elements–extraordinary passages of beauty and light (“Johanna”) juxtaposed against madness and death and even combined with madness and death (“Pretty Women”).
As a writer, there are abundant lessons in studying this work. Both Maeterlink and Debussy broke conventions for their forms (fairy tale and opera) and that was what allowed them to thrill as opposed to merely satisfying.
To those staging the opera–which apparently is rendered in many settings including contemporary–and eagerly embrace the darkness of this, I would admonish you not to lose the light, the water. It is both light and dark that fills Debussy’s score. Let’s not forget Debussy’s fascination with water either, evident in his water series: En bateau (1889), Sirenes (1899), Reflets dans l’eau (1905), Voiles (1910), and La Cathedrale engloutie (1910). According to a quick search on my favorite site for finding live classical music Bachtrack, The Met is producing Pelléas et Mélisande this December, and I’d be very curious to see how they stage it, if render honor both dark and light, water and stone, the insanity of love and the madness of revenge. With any luck, I’ll be able to attend. (Single tickets go on sale August 15).
I’ve included two YouTube clips. The first is perhaps (for a romantic like me), the most soaring scene in the opera–the first real love scene between the young bride and her husband’s brother. The only thing I would change is that the setting, the surroundings are too dark. The interplay between light and dark should not be left to the music alone.
In this second clip, I love the play of light and the veil (which Maeterlink used when he premiered the play). This is an important scene because she loses her wedding ring in the well. I love the attention to light play created by the white scarf Pelléas holds and the crown of glory that is Mélisande’s hair. I think Melisande’s youth is important though in this clip Pelléas looks younger than she does.
*first published July 31, 2010