On Friday evening, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Debussy’s opera at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the City of Light, a retrospective that examines works seen in Paris during the first half of the 20th century. In this presentation, director David Edwards linked Acts I to III as well as Acts IV and V with a narrative of material drawn from writings by Maurice Maeterlinck, read by Kate Burton. Salonen’s interpretation is a delight to be savored and remembered for a long time. Librettist and composer Claude Debussy based his opera Pelléas et Mélisande on the popular Symbolist play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck. He had read the play before its first performance and was present at its première on 17 May 1893. Quite a few composers of the time were inspired by this play – Gabriel Fauré and Jean Sibelius composed incidental music for it, and Arnold Schoenberg wrote a tone poem. Debussy wrote that Pelléas seemed to suit his intentions admirably. “In it there is an evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and into the orchestral backcloth."

Camilla Tilling © Craig T. Mathew | Mathew Imaging
Camilla Tilling
© Craig T. Mathew | Mathew Imaging
In the fall of 1893 Debussy began to make the play into a libretto. He omitted four scenes, one from each act, and deleted a great deal of the playwright’s descriptive material. The Paris Opéra-Comique premiered the opera on 30 April 1902, with the young and agile Mary Garden as Mélisande. The conductor was fellow composer André Messager, who had convinced the Opéra-Comique to stage the work.

Romain Rolland declared Pélleas et Mélisande to be, "one of the three or four outstanding achievements in French musical history" and Vincent d'Indy’s review found that the composer, “expressed the human feelings and human sufferings in human terms, despite the outward appearance the characters present of living in a dream."

Salonen brings out the elusive natures of these intensely human but uniquely individual characters. When Mélisande sings “Je ne suis pas heureuse” she speaks of much deeper sentiments that can only be expressed by Debussy’s music and Salonen gave us full measure of that expression last night.

When Mélisande sings “Je ne suis pas heureuse” she speaks of much deeper sentiments that can only be expressed by Debussy’s music and Salonen gave us full measure of that expression last night.

Vocally, Camilla Tilling had the beauty of tone and delicacy of manner that the role of Mélisande needs. The semi-staging only partially communicated the story’s dramatic depth, however, making me wish that Edwards had been able to give us a fully staged version of this unusual work. Stéphane Degout gave a memorable performance of Pelléas using his elegant French and his insight into this intensely French role to project the simplicity, as well as the restrained passion, of his complex character.

It is Golaud’s jealousy that poisons the atmosphere around the exquisite castle in which the story takes place. Laurent Naouri was a sonorous Golaud whose anger was not only visible but vocally and orchestrally audible as the story advanced. Although the parts of Geneviève and Arkel are not large, they enabled the Los Angeles audience to again enjoy the artistry fine veteran artists, Dame Felicity Palmer and Sir Willard White.

<i>Pelléas et Mélisande</i> at Walt Disney Hall © Craig T. Mathew | Mathew Imaging
Pelléas et Mélisande at Walt Disney Hall
© Craig T. Mathew | Mathew Imaging

Dressed as a teenager, Chloé Briot was a boyish Yniold. Nicholas Brownlee sang a strong Physician, and Hadleigh Adams a rough edged Shepherd. Kate Burton set the other-worldly tone of the piece as the Narrator while Colin Grenfell’s lighting intensified its ambience with color. The Los Angeles Master Chorale was seated on either side of the hall and their contributions surrounded the audience with singing.

Salonen is an expert at adjusting the orchestral dynamics between the level needed to accompany the voices and the sonorous possibilities of the unfettered LA Phil. His players brought out the iridescence and myriad colors of Debussy’s score and they spread their tonal beauty throughout the hall’s glorious acoustics. Although the production was only semi-staged, this was great opera at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

*****