Tag Archives: Pelléas et Mélisande

whole vs. parts? parts is parts . . .

Pelléas et Mélisande set/Metropolitan Opera


I like all things live more than I like their filmed counterparts–musicals, plays, sports, operas. I’d rather be there in person, in the thick of a basketball game, than reduced to watching it on TV. I’d much rather be gazing at a stage through the invisible fourth wall than be plopped in a comfy air chair watching some cinematic treatment I ordered through Netflix.   

As a faithful proponent for live vs. taped, I’m keenly attuned to production values. Yes, of course, I’m always wowed by the extraordinary. But more than that, I want balance. All parts of a production should support the whole. Someone, hopefully the director, but maybe the producer or the conductor, has to be gutsy enough to strive for that all important balance.   

Here’s a recent non-operatic example. A week after it was released, I was dragged along to see Eat, Pray, Love, the movie. I’ll grant you that the previews augured some magnificent scenery. But I had already read portions of the book, and frankly, it failed to impress me like it did friends of mine. Well, no surprise–I didn’t care for the movie either. Was the scenery magnificent? Absolutely. Did the magnificent  scenery overshadow the rest of the movie’s elements? Absolutely. Which made the whole experience utterly disappointing for me because I wanted a seamless experience.   

Last weekend, I saw Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met. And the production as a whole didn’t work for me. I’ll admit I had some very high expectations for the event: Simon Rattle conducting in his Met debut; Debussy’s luminous, haunting score; and of course, the fact that it was a Metropolitan Opera production featuring some very talented and accomplished singers.   

Why didn’t it work? The attention that the audience was expected to pay to the set (yes, the set) was out of balance. First of all, it was a huge mansion, stories high, an overpowering hulk that lumbered around the stage in slow motion during the musical interludes. For me, it didn’t support the story or the music. It stole too much focus–mental energy– away from the rest of the production.   

Undue attention had been paid to the set as opposed to balancing the set with the rest of the elements. Had more attention been given to the overall work, to advancing the whole as a whole, such a set might have been reenvisioned as something that would lift up all the other production elements.   

If a production takes pains to show me its parts more than its virtues, on the whole, I know I’ll be disappointed. After all, parts is, well, merely parts.   

What do you think? If a production is very strong in certain parts, is that good enough for you, as an opera- or theatre-goer?

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Filed under Classic Opera, North American Opera, Rant, Reviews

don’t quote me . . .

Debussy at the Villa Medici in Rome, 1885, at center in the white jacket

“Music really ought to have been a hermetical science, enshrined in texts so laborious and difficult as to discourage the herd of people who treat it as casually as they do a handkerchief. I would go further, and instead of spreading music among the populace, I propose the foundation of a Society of Musical Esotericism.”
–Claude Debussy, in a letter to Ernest Chausson

*from David Grayson’s Program Notes on Pelléas et Mélisande, Metropolitan Opera


Filed under 20th Century Opera, opera quotes

water, light, darkness, good, evil–all combine in ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’

Sunrise by Monet

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.”            

Painter Edmund Leighton's "Pelléas et Mélisande"

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.            

the chasm of unrequited love in “Pelléas et Mélisande”

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.           

YouTube Preview Image           

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.           

YouTube Preview Image

*first published July 31, 2010 


Filed under 20th Century Opera, Classic Opera, Classical Composers, masterpieces

have you met the Ginger Trietto?

I have a little secret. I have a supplier . . . of nifty opera guides. My fellow writer Ginger travels 200+ days a year for her job and frequents secondhand shops. Whenever she finds a book about opera, no matter where she is in the country, she packs it up and ships it to me.   

Without further adieu, let me introduce the Ginger Trietto, coming to opera lovers at Christmastime as a trunk show:   

The Standard Opera and Concert Guide

The first book in the triad is The Standard Opera and Concert Guide, by Upton and Borowski. This old chestnut was last published in 1930. This is a wonderful guide for learning all about classic opera, organized by composer. Sometimes the book offers brief biographical information about the composer. Sometimes it jumps directly into an analysis of their seminal work. I love the voice of the book almost as much as the information it provides. The authors sound like perfect gentlemen–they never shred any work, they always find some redeeming quality or they haven’t included it in the volume. I used this book to write many posts for Operatoonity, including a post about Englebert Humperdinck, another about a Ravel opera, and a post about a classic premiere in MayThe Marriage of Figaro, my favorite. This is a full-bodied reference book that goes well with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.   

Fifty Favorite Operas, also goes well with Cabernet

Next up, we have the always delightful, Fifty Favorite Operas by Paul England, no relation to the Queen of England. I used this lovely text–organized by work, not by composer–to write a post called “Fifty Favorite Operas,” a truly fruitful post because of the comments it evoked. Several commenters left a top-ten list of their favorites, which led me to investigate and write posts about Pelléas et Mélisande (which happens to be one of my favorite posts if you haven’t read it) by Debussy as well as a wistful post about Der Freischütz by Weber. I absolutely adored Pelléas et Mélisande, the story, yes, but especially the music–soaring and transcendent, which I might never have been introduced to without Ginger sending me this book. As a result, I’m seeing the show at the Met on December 17, and reviewing it for Bachtrack.   

The Penguin Opera Guide

The most recent tome is the comprehensive Penguin Opera Guide edited by Amanda Holden. This beefy paperback (530 pages) is organized alphabetically by composer. This text is the most modern of all three and offers generous bios of each composer. It’s broader in scope because it includes modern opera composers like Adams (Nixon in China) and Britten (Turn of the Screw). I remember feeling like I hit the jackpot with this text. Every time I encounter a new work, I check it out in this book. It’s also great for fact-checking. And coincidentally, like the Cabernet with which it’s paired, it is likewise full-bodied and intriguing.   

To sum it up, I have three wonderful texts to use to create meaty and accurate posts for this blog. And I have one wonderful friend to thank for them.

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Filed under Classic Opera, Classical Composers, favorites, Heartstoppers

rising Canadian star makes Opéra Comique debut . . .

Phillip Addis, Canadian baritone


One of Canada’s fastest rising opera stars, baritone Phillip Addis, makes his double debut Monday, June 14, in the title role of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and his Paris debut at the legendary Opéra Comique where the work had its premiere more than 100 years ago, on April 30, 1902.   

How exciting that must be for an opera singer to perform at the world-renowned Opéra Comique!  Addis speaks to the sense of history he felt preparing for such a famous role in the  acoustically live atmosphere where Debussy’s work was heard for the first time:  

I have been preparing this role for many months but it wasn’t until I arrived in Paris and began rehearsals that I felt the weight of history of this incredible opera. To be standing on the stage where it was first premiered over 100 years ago is magical, daunting and exciting.”   

Praised for his creamy, bright voice as much as for his daring, yet sensitive interpretations, Phillip Addis has performed in opera, concerts and recitals throughout Canada, the United States, Europe and Japan.  

His vocal quality is both creamy and dreamy. Listen to his rendition of La Ballade de la Reine Mab from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette:  

La Ballade de la Reine Mab [MP3 2.5 MB, 2:44]  

Isn’t his baritone voice smooth– ideal for French repertoire!  

Phillip Addis as the Count in 'The Marriage of Figaro,' Opera Atelier


Addis looks forward to another major debut in the 2010-2011 season when he takes on the title role of Massenet’s Werther mounted by L’Opéra de Montréal in the rarely performed baritone version.  

Interestingly, he is equally comfortable tackling the challenges of contemporary roles as he is in singing standard opera repertoire.  In September 2010, he sings the role of Jaufre Rudel in Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin at the De Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp in the Fall.   

This past season included a number of firsts for Addis, among them, his New York debut as Roderick Usher in Debussy’s The Fall of the House of Usher with Opéra Français de New York, his first performances as Belcore in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore with Atlanta Opera, and his role debut as John Brooke in the Canadian premiere of Mark Adamo’s Little Women with Calgary Opera.  

Pelléas et Mélisande is a new production staged by Stéphane Braunschweig with French soprano Karen Vourc’h as Mélisande, conducted by Maestro Sir John Eliot Gardiner, The performances run June 14, 16, 18, 22, 24, 27 29. Additional performance information and ticket availability can be found at www.opera-comique.com


Filed under Classic Opera, opera firsts, Performers