Monday, October 20, 2003

Je l'ai trouvée! Pelléas et Mélisande, Boston Symphony Orchestra

I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Pelléas et Mélisande. I’d only seen part of it before, and that was the later, tenor version. I didn’t like the idea of Pelléas squalling like a tenor all the time, and the production was kind of hampered by an anvilicious set. In Act 3, when Pelléas is supposed to wrap himself in Mélisande’s unbound hair, which has overflowed from her window and down the tower, Mélisande was sitting in an Art Deco-ish light fixture. I mean, I know light and darkness and lamps are supposed to be recurring themes and images throughout the opera, but I get it already, why did they have to stick the broad in a lamp? And when Golaud was supposed to be holding his son Yniold up to peek into Mélisande’s bedroom window, this staging had him sticking Yniold’s head through a hole in the glass floor, which isn’t going to work unless Mélisande is secretly a mutant mole-person and which made it kind of difficult (having never before seen the opera) to tell what the hell was going on. I was also cooking a torta while I was watching it, so I wasn’t paying that much attention. At the end, I just wasn’t very sold on the opera at all. But now I am, thanks to the incredible performances I saw last Thursday and Saturday. I know now why it’s so much harder to write a positive review than a negative one—sometimes things are just so damn good that words are inadequate. And words are almost inadequate to describe the Boston Symphony’s performance of Pelléas et Mélisande. I was glad that it was a concert version, because the opera doesn’t really have much action in it anyway, and in concert versions, you avoid people sitting in lamps or nuns wearing giant pig heads and so forth.

Boston Symphony Hall has amazing acoustics, some of the best in the world, and the orchestra played wonderfully under Bernard Haitink (who earned my respect not only for his conducting, but for his hissing at people who had arrived late and were being seated during the music. Fuckwits.) Debussy’s music is unlike any opera I’ve ever heard; there are no arias, no real duets; people sing together at times, but they are rarely singing the same thing or even answering what the other is saying, though Debussy did make some use of Wagnerian motifs for different characters. Usually, the music seems to simmer—and shimmer—along, always on the verge of raging into a fortissimo or sinking into pianissimo, but only rarely ever doing either. It never seemed to support, follow, or initiate the vocal lines, but rather flowed along like a river beneath them. Because of this, I never knew what to expect from the singers or the music. With Verdi, for example, I’ve come to be able to anticipate how an aria or a solo will end, vocally and musically. A few times, I let myself get duped by that anticipation. During one of Arkel’s longer solos, I expected him to do the usual Verdi ending for baritone/bass arias. Not even close. In Pelléas’s big, revelatory moment in Act 4, I thought the music would rise to a Puccinian crescendo accompanied by a high note. It didn’t really; in fact, the music seemed to fold back in on itself like a wave as soon as it had peaked.

Haitink and the Symphony gave Debussy’s music the color and richness he intended it to have. It is Impressionist music, and it has an amazing ability to describe visuals with sound. The waterlike quality of the music—ranging from a trickling fountain to a dank puddle to a swirling torrent—made me visualize the colors of an Impressionist painting, one of Monet’s waterlily paintings, all the colors coming together to form a blurred picture. It was like a piece of watered silk being rippled, making tranquil greens, soft blues and pinks, and angry navy and purple flow across it. But it wasn’t all gauzy and misty, and it was never insipid. The music created that image of silk in my head, but it also described in fantastic detail the kingdom of Allemonde, where the opera is set. I could picture the dark, gloomy forests, the strange wells and fountains (I imagined the fountain in Rossetti’s Rachel and Leah), the fetid, oppressive underground caverns, the sunshine falling on castle walls as easily as if I were looking at a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

The supporting cast was very good. Natalie Stutzmann as Genevieve had a deep, rich contralto, so deep that she sometimes sounded deeper than Simon Keenlyside’s Pelléas. James Danner was a hammy Yniold, but he was less annoying than most boy sopranos, at least. John Tomlinson (who I had seen as Golaud) made a good Arkel; he has a very large voice, but it’s clearly aged, which fits Arkel’s character. He was more sympathetic than the Arkel I had seen before, who had just been kind of an old perv.

I didn’t really care one way or the other about Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson’s Mélisande. Hunt-Lieberson looked like the hypothetical love-child of Jane Curtin and Frederica von Stade, and she wore a plain, cream dress. She has a nice voice, and she was never shrill or shrieky, but her characterization ranged from “Meh” to bewildering. Sometimes she appeared to be smiling at inappropriate times. I know Mélisande is supposed to be kind of a space-case, but come on. Most of the time, she stood in a strange, hunched posture, so that she kind of looked like a beaten dog, which I guess is appropriate for someone who has “the strange, distraught air of someone forever expecting a great misfortune, in sunlight, in a beautiful garden.” This worked in the scenes where her husband Golaud was berating her, but after a while it got a little annoying. Her acting ran the gamut from “Dude, I am so high right now” to a general wistfulness, but I think Mélisande should be more layered than that; long, gorgeous hair can only get you so far in life. I don’t know why so many reviewers are saying that she was the star of the performance, because her characterization seemed only in its infancy, and her voice was pretty but nothing very remarkable. Then again, I just don’t like female voices very much, so I’m speaking out of bias here. Maybe Mélisande is supposed to be kind of a blank character; she never reveals her history and almost always answers questions evasively or not at all. It seemed more that the male characters shaped her or imposed their image of her onto her. I found it interesting that Mélisande rarely answered Golaud directly (Golaud: “How old are you?” Mélisande: “I feel cold.” The hell?), but would answer Pelléas, albeit in a rambling sort of way; one of them was always kind of babbling around the other. Hunt-Lieberson didn’t make me feel anything much for Mélisande, other than a vague frustration.

Gerald Finley was wonderful in his first Golaud. His voice is a fairly dark baritone, and it reminded me a lot of Sam Ramey’s voice, right down to the nasalized semi-snarl on some of the words. I was amazed to discover that it was his first Golaud, since he was so good. He never played Golaud as a brute, and I could sympathize with his character. Golaud is on a similar journey to Pelléas; he’s feeling things he has never felt before perhaps, but unlike Pelléas, he fights them and questions them. Finley’s Golaud was ruled by his jealousy and his love for Mélisande, but he seemed confused by them, and was struggling to figure them out in what he considered a logical way—he thinks the truth will help him understand, but no one can ever give him the truth, especially Mélisande, who says that she never lies, except to him. His emotions sent him into rages and acts of cruelty, but he was tortured by those responses, by guilt for being unable to control himself. He could be terrifying, pathetic, fatherly, and tortured equally convincingly. I got the feeling that Golaud would never be able to understand and was therefore doomed to be tormented; he’s more of a solid, natural, human character than Pelléas and Mélisande, who seem to live in a dream world, or Arkel, who in his blindness can see deeper than others, and Finley’s portrayal fit this very well, with its rapid shifts between emotions and its tempestuous outbursts. His dark, brooding looks also made a good foil for Simon Keenlyside’s fair, dreamy Pelléas.

And now, the real star of the show: Simon Keenlyside. There is no baritone working in the world today better than Simon Keenlyside. But what about Hvorostovsky? Quasthoff? Hampson? Croft? No, no, no, no. It’s all Keenlyside. His lyric voice is too light for any of the major Verdi roles, but his voice is without a doubt the most beautiful voice I have ever heard, in any fach. Words can’t capture his Pelléas or begin to describe it. He is a singer at the pinnacle of his artistic powers, and I never want it to end. His Pelléas was pure beauty, a luxuriant combination of gold, blue, honey, silk, roses, velvet, water, sky, french horns, cellos. It’s above description. He was like an Apollo in the halo of the stagelights. My eyes seemed to blur every time I looked at him, as if he were one of Dante’s angels—“Clearly I discerned the fair hair of them, but in their faces the eye was dazed, like a faculty which by excess is confounded.”

On Thursday night, he seemed sick (we later found out that he had a cold); he had to blow his nose a lot, and at one point got a lozenge out of his trouser pocket. He also seemed quite fidgety and uncomfortable, pulling at the collar of his tuxedo. But he sounded gorgeous. I didn’t think he could sound better than he did on Thursday night, but on Saturday, he surpassed himself, even though when he wasn't singing, he sat kind of dejectedly slumped. At least the handkerchief only came out once on Saturday, and that was just to wipe his brow. Pelléas is a difficult role because it starts out too low for most tenors and then, oddly, as Pelléas “becomes a man” it becomes too high for most baritones, but it sounded as if it had been written for Keenlyside. In the Act 4 scene in which Pelléas and Mélisande declare their love for each other, he maintained such a high range so fully, so beautifully, with no sign of strain. It was easily my best opera experience ever. At Pelléas’s climactic, joyous cry of “Je l’ai trouvée!” (he says that he has searched for perfect beauty, and he has finally find it in Mélisande), I was overwhelmed, got covered in goosebumps, and started crying. The hall was saturated in the sheer radiance of his joy. I get goosebumps all over again when I just think about it, and I hope I will be able to hear it in my mind forever. (Please, please, record it!)

At first I was worried about his acting, since I wasn’t sure how he’d do in a concert version, what with his acute case of David-Bowie-itis. I saw him in a concert version of Don Carlo earlier this year, and his acting was very minimal then, and he clung to his score. But that was his first Rodrigo, so it’s kind of understandable. In the beginning of Pelléas, he didn't really have much to do, and he played it kind of fidgety and nervous, like a young man who is youthfully nervous and anxious to meet his brother’s wife, wringing his hands, moving as if unsure of himself. Keenlyside’s Pelléas is childlike, innocent, living in a dream world. I think, ideally, Pelléas and Mélisande should circle each other like undines, clearly in a separate world where Golaud can’t reach them. Only Keenlyside's Pelléas was living up to his side of the otherworldliness. During their duets together, he would stare at Hunt-Lieberson behind the conductor’s back (a set-up that Keenlyside said he preferred, since the two are often in their own worlds when they're together), but rather than going all glassy-eyed the way she did when she looked at him, he would subtly react to her words, smiling slightly or looking at her with the awe of first love. His acting was better on Saturday night too, especially when, in Act 4, Pelléas finally tells Mélisande that he loves her. The line is spoken (which is a devastating contrast to Golaud's only spoken lines—groans of remorse and self-disgust for being responsible for Mélisande's death), without any musical accompaniment. Keenlyside said “Je t’aime” and then exhaled, almost half-sighed, as if in relief at having finally gotten the words out.His Pelléas grew in intensity as the opera went on, and as the character discovered and gave in to his new feelings, working up to the Act 4 scene, which is just an orgy of euphoria and dizzying happiness (unfortunately, Golaud stabs Pelléas soon after Mélisande confesses that she loves him). And this was when Keenlyside's performance reached its peak. His body is so wonderfully kinetic; the passion he is portraying fills him from his toes. All his gestures are half-finished, as so often Pelléas's feelings are half-articulated, half-comprehended, half-answered. It seemed that those gestures often went unfinished as a sign that Pelléas was trying to suppress his true feelings for Mélisande. It seems like he’s testing himself, to see how far he can go, just as Keenlyside was testing the bubbles in his glass of water at the colloquium—he wanted to see how far they could be pushed before they burst. This dangerous passion is first seen in the tower scene with Mélisande, in which Pelléas begins to realize and to speak his love for her. He bathes in it as he bathes himself in the shower of her hair. Keenlyside was surely passionate in this scene, his Pelléas was reveling in his newfound emotions, but it was still a yearning, unrequited passion. When Pelléas got the truth from Mélisande, that truth Golaud wanted so much to hear, Keenlyside let the passion go, makes Pelléas leave everything that was holding him to the earth go. The bubbles exploded. He rocked forward and back, gestured quite wildly with his arms, but it was never too much, because the movements seemed to come from somewhere purely physical and instinctive, never calculated. It was done with such ease, which made it all the more heartbreaking; Pelléas was being carried along by the strength of his love, only to be killed for it. Words are really inadequate, even though I’ve written a lot of them. I had expected that Pelléas et Mélisande would’ve been too subtle, too restrained, as the music at first seems to be. But in truth, it is full of passion, rage, emotion, that is constantly simmering—or festering—as the music flows along, just waiting to flare into a storm. Keenlyside’s Pelléas gave us a storm of passionate love in just two, brief yet completely perfect outbursts, and Finley’s Golaud almost matched him with his terrifying, frustrated, yet oddly pitiful rages. Their passion radiated from them, they poured it forth, as the orchestra poured theirs into their music and held me riveted to my seat as if a beautiful incubus were sitting on my chest, and left me watching with awed and tear-filled eyes.

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