Cheers mingled with boos in equal proportion at the Music Center on Saturday night. Considering that Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”– exquisite, subtle and quiet — seldom arouses that much emotional response on either side, the Los Angeles Opera’s new production must be reckoned a stunning success. There are other reasons, as well.
On musical grounds, there should be no cause for argument. Esa-Pekka Salonen , in his first stint at conducting opera in the U.S., has shaped a performance rich in its control of color, responsive to the fleeting moods of the piece and the steady building toward the shattering cataclysm.
In its grand plan, the strength of its conception, the iconoclastic visuals created by director Peter Sellars and his designers make their points. There seems to be a deliberate and ongoing attempt to devise a contradiction between the work itself and its realization, and this often is to the good.
James Ingalls’ high-contrast lighting with its clean, fluorescent colors in direct conflict with Debussy’s half-tones, helps immeasurably to define the progress of the drama and distracts agreeably from the interminable nattering of some of its characters. Sellars also has invented a few diversions of his own to speed the pace, such as the dying and then recovering father of Pelleas.
All this happens, as widely trumpeted by the L.A. Opera’s ad writers, in a setting far removed from Maeterlinck’s misty medieval forests and palaces — possibly identifiable as a Malibu beachfront (or, for that matter, East Hampton, Biarritz or Tahoe).
George Tzypin’s single set — a labyrinth of interlocking spaces, some with hospital equipment, others bare — hangs suspended from a cliffside; its several rooms light up or go dark as action moves through them. Underneath, the beach is a floor of fluorescent tubes: bright blue for waves down front (flickering rather distractingly), multicolored for distant drive-ins, PCH traffic or nightclubs upstage.
There is a superb cast, marvelously responsive to the quality of mind in the whole undertaking, Salonen’s musical integrity and Sellars’ inventive resource. Monica Groop is an earthy, unusually self-reliant Melisande, not the vaporous sprite of some past productions. Francois Le Roux is a curious but convincing Pelleas, confused and diffident at first and strengthened by his love for Melisande. Willard White (a terrific Porgy on the Glyndebourne recording of the Gershwin opera, by the way) creates a Golaud both terrifying and vulnerable.
Updating operas, at which Sellars is by now a practiced hand, is always a risky business. Even though the mists around the original work make “Pelleas et Melisande” an opera of no particular place and time, it’s not always easy to conceive a wronged husband in 1995 Malibu going after his rival with the family sword.
But Sellars and his fluorescents reveal Debussy’s opera in a vivid new light, and it glows.