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Debussy brings mystery and lyricism to Opera Theatre

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 2, 2011 - "Pelleas and Melisande," which opens its Opera Theatre run on Sunday, is considered by many to be Claude Debussy's greatest masterpiece. But it has rarely been performed since its great champion, Austrian conductor Herbert Von Karajan, died in 1989. It is the third of Opera Theatre St. Louis' four productions this season, and it's presented in rotation through June 24, the festival's final weekend.

The Music

Debussy's music sweeps you to a mysterious fairyland of dark woods, a seaside castle where an elusive Melisande sits in a tower with her hair reaching to the ground -- echoing the Brothers Grimm's "Rapunzel."

Debussy, better known for "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and  "La Mer," many nocturnes and symphonies, piano works and art songs, talked for years about wanting to write an opera. He travelled twice to see Richard Wagner's operas at Bayreuth, Germany. And this story choice seems similar to Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," which preceded "Pelleas" by 37 years.

The music, however, has few similarities: Debussy's spare understated work contrasts with Wagner's sometimes overblown music. He didn't call it an opera, but a "Lyric Drama in five acts and 12 tableaux." Opera Theatre will have just one intermission.

Debussy also waited for a playwright who put aside the over-the-top emotional drama -- standard fare at the end of the 19th-century operas -- for a nuanced and impressionistic work much like the paintings and sculpture of his countrymen Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Auguste Rodin.

Debussy eventually found a stage play with more symbolism than dramatic passion in "Pelleas and Melisande" by Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Debussy took Maeterlinck's spare play, rearranged it and boiled it down further for his three-hour and 10-minute opera. Its lyrics are virtually all from the original play. Debussy was no Mozart dashing off an opera in weeks. Debussy's first draft of the opera was completed in 1885. In his 1893 letter to French opera composer Emmanuel Chabrier, Debussy asked his friend not to laugh but that he had found himself using silence to make clear the emotions of the nearby phrases.

Debussy broke the opera mold in other ways, too. His opera has no overture, no arias, no pauses for applause, no long duets and no real ensembles. Pelleas and Melisande sing with each other just once near the end. Their three love scenes are paced by three symphonic musical interludes.

"There are no ornaments, no set pieces with high notes, no sustained notes," said Amy Kaiser, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra chorus director who lectured on each of the four OTSL 2011 operas in a series at the Levy Opera Center in April. "Debussy told his singers before the 'Pelleas and Melisande' premiere: 'Please forget you are singers.' "

Much of the opera's emotion comes from the orchestral pit. Oboe, bassoon and, at the end, timpani tell the story. When a couple declares mutual forbidden love, violins reach such high notes it is as if a warning were sounding. In the three musical interludes "the orchestra comments on what has happened." Kaiser said. "The orchestra tells the whole story."

According to Kaiser, one of the reasons the piece is not performed often is that it requires a "great orchestra." Most regional opera companies have pick-up orchestras whose players are not accustomed to playing with each other and may not deliver the difficult music as well. All instrumentalists at Opera Theatre are St. Louis Symphony players who work year round together and have an international reputation.

"Shimmering beauty" was Kaiser's description of the music. Indeed, Opera magazine's veteran writer Joseph Wechsberg was so moved by a 1962 performance conducted by Von Karajan that he wrote, "For the first time in my experience I was shaking by the power of Debussy's music, previously I had only been moved by its beauty. This is a lyrical and a dramatic interpretation and, when the inexorable climax comes towards the end, one sits spellbound."

The Story

The story is simple enough. Melisande pushes three generations of a king's family to become so dysfunctional it would have fascinated Freud. Indeed, the opera, which premiered in 1902, may have reached his ears.

The mystery comes from why the characters, especially Melisande, act the way they do. The influence of Wagner is seen in the mythic, medieval quality, set in a castle by the sea. Much of the stage is shrouded in shadow. One character even loses an ancient golden ring, a riveting idea in Wagner.

But the story like the music is about nuance and understatement never Wagnerian excess. "Unlike Wagner's operas, this opera does not have fixed truths," Kaiser said.

Its OTSL director sees it set in the time that Debussy was growing up.

"It's a Pre-Raphaelite fairy tale, how a girl comes into a family, disrupts it, guts it and her relationships," David Alden said.

The Pre-Raphaelite British artists of the mid- to late-19th century revived fairytales as they painted medieval-gowned women in castles. One of the Pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti is the main precursor of the later European Symbolist movement, which Debussy embraced.

At its world premiere in Paris, the opera was praised as radically chic. The plot's bareness and mystery put the listeners on the edge of his chair as she, or he, works the imagination to fill in blanks.

"Pelleas and Melisande" opens in dark woods in the kingdom of Allemonde. Prince Golaud, grandson of the ill, nearly blind King Arkel, gets lost while hunting. Golaud's a recent widower with a 10-year-old son, Yniold. Golaud comes upon a lovely stranger, Melisande. Her crown is in the water, but she will not retrieve it.

Maeterlinck wrote an earlier play about Bluebeard, which has Alden wondering about Melisande's past. "Was she one of Bluebeard's wives?' Alden asked at the "Spotlight" panel discussion. She might have fled and wanted to hide her crown along with her past, he suggested.

In the second scene Golaud has married Melisande but still knows little about the foreigner.

"He follows his own emotions, is a slave to his emotions," said Kaiser.

Pelleas, the king's son and Golaud's younger half-brother, is closer to Melisande in age and becomes her friend and initially her innocent playmate. Eventually the younger pair struggles over loyalty to Golaud.

When Melisande loses her wedding ring, Pelleas sings about telling his brother the truth about how she lost it. She does not take his advice.

Kaiser counted 27 lies that Melisande tells.

Golaud becomes so disturbed by his half-brother's hours alone with his young wife that he asks his son Yniold many questions about the pair. Yniold, innocent of his father's reasons, answers truthfully with affection toward the couple. Then, Golaud hoists his son up to a window and asks him to spy on the couple.

"It is painful and shocking," Kaiser said.

Because all operas at OTSL are sung in English, the St. Louis company commissioned Washington University music professor Hugh Macdonald to translate the text into English from the French. For opera lovers determined not to miss a word, supertitles are projected above the stage, and this English text, called a libretti, is for sale in the lobby boutique, as well as libretti for the other three opera.

The Artists

For this rarely performed masterpiece, Opera Theatre assigned two of the biggest names in American Opera. Stage director David Alden has directed at opera companies worldwide including years at London's English National Opera, Munich's Bavarian State Opera, the Vienna Volksoper, the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Lyric and Santa Fe Opera. In 2006, the Bavarian State Opera paid tribute to Alden with a festival of eight of his productions. This opera marks his St. Louis debut. The New York native's identical twin, Christopher Alden, has served as stage director three times for Opera Theatre.

The conductor for "Pelleas and Melisande" is Stephan Lord, OTSL long-time music director. Lord, former music director of the Boston Lyric Opera, also conducts widely in the U.S. and at the English National Opera. In addition, he runs the New England Conservatory of Music's opera program. Opera News named Lord one of three conductors in its list of "25 Most Powerful Names in U.S. Opera."

Debussy's opera requires a great harpist. In fact, Debussy's score called for two harpists. "We have Frances (Tietov) and she can do it all -- both parts -- beautifully," Lord said with a big smile to opera buffs at the company's Spotlight on Opera panel in May at the St. Louis Ethical Society. Tietov is the St. Louis Symphony's harp principal.

The cast includes several singers who have stolen the hearts of St. Louis opera buffs in recent seasons. Yniold will be sung by Michael Kepler Meo, who sang the role of "Charlie" in "The Golden Ticket" last season. Lord said the role is often sung by an adult female soprano and OTSL is lucky that Michael's voice has not changed. Despite its similarity to "Rapunzel," this is not an opera suited to most youths before high school.

For a couple years, Kelly Kaduce had been under contract to sing Melisande, but when she became pregnant last fall, the St. Louis favorite was let out of her contract. (A few weeks ago, she gave birth to a boy whom she and her husband, baritone Lee Gregory, named Colin in honor of the late OTSL artistic director Colin Graham who discovered Kaduce and mentored her career.)

This winter, Corinne Winters signed on to replace Kaduce. Tim O'Leary, OTSL general director, called her appearance one of those "star-in-the-making" roles coming just months before opening. While Winters didn't have two years to prepare the role with her voice coach, as is common in opera, she arrived knowing every note after four months of work.

She made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera this winter as Countess Ceprano in "Rigoletto," conducted by Fabio Luisi. Many out-of-town critics and managers of other opera companies will be watching her performance closely since her Met debut and a string of recent awards and grants have made her a "comer."

Winters' voice will not be new to St. Louisans. For two seasons she sang as an OTSL apprentice in the Gerdine Young Artists program. Last year she sang Mrs. Anderson in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music." The previous season she sang in John Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles."

Paired with Winters in the other title role is Liam Bonner making his St. Louis debut as Pelleas.

Golaud will be sung by the returning Gregory Dahl, who sang John the Baptist with Kaduce in the title role of "Salome" in OTSL's 2009 season.


Even if your tongue can gracefully curl around French wine labels and menus you might use tips on how to pronounce the opera and its characters:

Yniold is EEN-yold.

Melisande is MAY-lee-zand.

Pelleas is Pey-LAY.

His half-brother Golaud is Go-low.

Who's Who

Conductor - Stephen Lord

Stage Director - David Alden

Set Designer - Paul Steinberg

Costume Designer - Constance Hoffman

Lighting Designer - Adam Silverman

Wig and Makeup Designer - Ashley Ryan

Choreographer - Sean Curran

Chorus Master - Robert Ainsley

Golaud - Gregory Dahl

Melisande - Corinne Winters (above, Ken Howard | OTSL rehearsal photo)

Genevieve - Maria Zifchak

King Arkel - John Cheek

Pelleas - Liam Bonner

Yniold - Michael Kepler Meo

Patricia Rice, a St. Louis freelance journalist, has long written about opera.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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