Saturday, July 5, 2014

Dream a Little Debussy Dream

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande
Against the Grain Theatre, Toronto, Canada
June 25, 2014

Water and loss are the themes of the night.
Image Credit: Against the Grain Theatre 
Lui: It was a cool and rainy early summer night in Toronto. Against the Grain Theatre was to stage a plein air production of Claude Debussy’s impressionistic symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande in the courtyard garden of their home base near the Distillery District. But due to a torrential downpour, they moved us inside to a space that was potentially even more dramatic: a vast refurbished old brick warehouse that loomed over the singers and the intimate audience. They were obviously ready for this eventuality as the stage was set up in a large square in the center of the space down toward one end. The audience was configured in three long rows along two sides of the square and the piano accompaniment down off one corner. The supertitles were projected onto one of the walls. On the floor were the minimalist intimations of a sort of garden/spring scene with large flat stones creating a series of paths that zigzagged across the stage. 

Dream a little Debussy dream.
Photo credit: Darryl Block
The whole thing was very low lit so that the characters when they finally appeared seemed to emerge from the darkness like oneiric phantasms, in much the same way that the composer treats all of the action in his score. This is one of the things that is striking about the opera. It is truly a story told through music. Debussy forgoes much of the traditional operatic fare like arias and duets. The whole three-hour feast of musical impressionism plays like a piece of theatrical drama set to music, which is largely what it is. Debussy adapts to remarkable effects the French symbolist play, Pelléas et Mélisande, by Maurice Maeterlinck, who also wrote the incredibly poetic libretto. The music is breathtakingly beautiful. High romantic style, yet modernist with Debussy’s signature flights of impressionistic fancy. Stylistically, the closest thing to it that I have experienced is Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, though Debussy achieves greater subtlety in his score, deeper dreaminess.

Lei: Against the Grain’s production featured a stripped down piano accompaniment rather than Debussy’s sweep-me-away-with-the-wind full orchestral orchestration. The orchestra, however, was not missed as this configuration worked wonders in the intimacy of this setting. Music director and pianist Julien LeBlanc was outstanding and utterly impressive for bearing alone the task of keeping the Debussy flow effortlessly through the three hour-long show, and very beautifully so. The singing melded seamlessly with the piano and really came to the fore, and thank goodness because all singers were truly exceptional. There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. Even all of the secondary roles were sung with grace, poise and force.

Prince Golaud dares to love out of his league.
Photo credit: Darryl Block
Lui: Baritone Gregory Dahl, singing the role of the poor spurned lover Prince Golaud, was consistently phenomemal throughout the opera. His voice and stage presence exuded pure masculine energy from the moment he wandered onto the stage in the opening scene. As the opera begins we are introduced to Golaud who has strayed off the path at the mid-point of his life. He has just lost the trace of the boar he is hunting. He’s still trying to get his bearings when he stumbles upon the dark beauty of the mysterious Mélisande, who has a knack for dropping objects of great importance into the water where they end up for one reason or another irretrievable and put her in trouble. First is a mysterious crown some other man gave her, then the ring from her wedding to Golaud (causing him to throw his first jealous fit). 

The enigmatic Mélisande, a lost soul.
Photo credit: 
Darryl Block
She too is a lost and seemingly broken soul. We never get much in the way of any kind of deep psychologizing insight into what really makes this character tick. Perhaps this is because Mélisande may not even be human, but rather a fairy, siren-like creature, with supernaturally long hair that has a life of its own. Her locks play several key plot points: they make Pelléas fall in love with Mélisande in a creepy-feticistic way, Golaud grabs Mélisande by them when he brutalizes her, and they have a general tendency of falling from towers, onto trees and of course into the water. Mélisande is largely placed on a pedestal by the men who make what they want of her. Soprano Miriam Khalil played her beautifully with a wistful gaze that was always distant and almost statuesque, which completely suited the music and made the whole thing seem even dreamier. Khalil’s voice has a piercing yet sweet lyricism that rendered Mélisande the frail and tragic focal point of the opera, as it intertwined with the rest of the male voices surrounding her.

The forbidden courtship begins.
Photo credit: Darryl Block
Lei: Baritone Etienne Dupuis’ Pelléas displayed solid singing and acting throughout, with some moments of extraordinary ardent passion in his outbursts of love for Mélisande and his confrontations with Golaud. Dupuis’ articulation was always clear and his sound expressive.  Bass Alain Coulombe as the old king Arkel had a commanding and almost haunting vocal presence notwithstanding his slim frame, his instrument filled the space thunderously while he slowly paced around the stage with his cane. Arkel emerges as a wise survivor of the tragedy that dooms the younger characters, holding Mélisande’s daughter in the final scene as a promise for a better future. Mezzo Andrea Núñez played Yniold, Golaud’s son from a previous marriage with convincing child-like freshness. Her duet with Gregory Dahl was to me one of the most tragically powerful moments of the opera, when Golaud receives what he subjectively perceives to be a confirmation of his wife’s affair with Pelléas from his child who peeks through a window. While the role of Geneviève (the mother of the rival brothers) is a minor one, mezzo Megan Latham portrayed her with solemn grace, particularly in her reading of the key letter from Golaud to Pelléas in the second scene of Act One. Last but not least, four-month old Salim Ivany (the son of director Joel Ivany and soprano Miriam Khalil), was impressive as Mélisande’s daughter. It was amazing to see this baby remain perfectly and blissfully peaceful while being carried around the stage by the singers in full cry in the final scene, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Truly a natural on the stage!

Yniold tells all.
Photo credit: Darryl Block
Lui: Young woman meets and marries middle-aged man, young woman subsequently falls in love with another man, young woman dies. It’s a classic love triangle. Though the story is really not nearly as straightforward as it is commonly thought. And that is exactly what I want to take a closer look at: the mysteries of this extremely rich symbolist text. For example, Mélisande has a special relationship to the water and woodland springs. Is she a woman? Or is she some kind of water nymph, like the fey Melusine, whom some claim inspired the source character in the 1883 play of the same name? Her otherworldliness, at least in this production, would certainly suggest the latter. In any case, she is a strange bird. So much so that I wasn’t sure what to make of the whole story. When in that opening scene she first meets her future husband and tells him that he’s a bit old for her taste but goes along with his advances anyway, a series of red flags went up for me. She has escaped the last man she was with, the one who gave her the crown.

Fatal love takes its toll.
Photo credit: Darryl Block
When we first meet her she seems like a victim of domestic abuse of one kind or another. I wasn’t sure if we were dealing with a proto-feminist story in which the tragic plight a woman living in a man’s world was meant to push us to sympathy over the fate of such a helpless creature, or if all this slightly offensive chauvinistic effrontery that she is forced to endure from all sides – whether from her husband, her father-in-law or her brother-in-law – was just supposed to be taken for granted as the mere texture of the world in which the story unfolds. Even the romance with Pelléas, her purported lover, is only ever convincing at the last moment in their relationship, after he has forced himself on her like all the other men she encounters. In this production, Mélisande was played with such detachment throughout even the kindling of romance with Pelléas that a reading that highlights her victimhood in this male dominated world seems to come to the fore. I tend to think that this is all key thematic material that is central to our understanding of the story. After all, from the very first moment we encounter her, right up the end, when she is laid out on her deathbed, she only ever adorns the pose of the victim, a victim of the world and the men in it.

Prince Golaud and his rival and brother, Pelléas, duke it out.
Photo credit: Darryl Block
Lei: I didn’t get that much of a proto-feminist vibe, though that can be a possible read, particularly with the rendering of this production and Khalil’s detached acting. To me the opera came off more as a timeless tragedy, where the mysterious plot points contributed to its charm of a dream-like impressionistic tale. There is something to the cathartic release of Golaud’s character at the end, with his need to accept the fact that his fatal flaw was desiring a woman who was too young for him. Marrying for love was not the fate that awaited him and everybody pays the consequences. Most of all, I was extremely impressed by the quality of this three year old opera company’s efforts. Against the Grain is a model indie enterprise, and with this production it showed how great operatic experiences can effectively be delivered in unconventional spaces – they did not over-think it and kept the basics strong. At the end all you need are amazing singers, a piano and a vision. We only experienced Against the Grain's contingency plan and loved every minute of it, but I can only imagine what it would have been like to catch this production in the courtyard where it was originally conceived (with the grass and climbing ivy representing water, the production notes tell us). Definitely worth the trip to Toronto, even under the pouring rain.  

– Lui & Lei

The courtyard garden setting we missed out on.
Photo credit: Against the Grain Theatre


  1. ....a lovely review, I attended the same performance.....a small correction, Étienne Dupuis is a baritone.

  2. thanks for noting that, it's now fixed - have to say that Étienne Dupuis fooled us, his top range was surprisingly high for a baritone!