Pelleas et Melisande

At 106-years-old, "Pelleas et Melisande" may be the greatest opera of the standard repertoire that has eluded popular acceptance.

'Pelleas et Melisande'

At 106-years-old, “Pelleas et Melisande” may be the greatest opera of the standard repertoire that has eluded popular acceptance. Strongly influenced by Wagner’s epic music dramas, Debussy tried to emulate the German master but in his uniquely French way, taking as the libretto for his only completed opera a five-act prose drama by Maurice Maeterlinck. The work is inherently rife with symbolism, but just what does it symbolize? Only a director with a solid concept and a cast able to put across the dense text can succeed. In this outing, Laurent Pelly is not the man for the job.

Expectations ran high when it was announced that Natalie Dessay — the French diva most recently known for being plastered a la Carrie Bradshaw on New York City buses to promote the Metropolitan Opera’s “Lucia di Lamermoor” — would sing her first Melisande in a production directed by frequent collaborator Pelly.

Pelly led Dessay to rapturous successes with Donizetti’s comedy “La Fille du Regiment” in London, Vienna and New York. But here he seems to have no grasp of Maeterlinck’s wispy dialogue and its miles of deep subtext, some of it bordering on surrealism.

Young widower Golaud (Laurent Naouri), father of the infant Yniold (Beate Ritter) and son of old King Arkel of Allemonde (Phillip Ens), is lost in the woods. He stumbles across a girl sobbing by a pond in which she has lost her golden crown, but Golaud doesn’t learn much more except that she was, apparently, severely abused. Melisande offers few facts.

Golaud is soon married to her, but learns no more of her history. She seems far more relaxed with her husband’s younger half-brother, Pelleas (Stephane Degout). The relationship between stepbrother and new wife drives Golaud to fratricide, even though — as far as we know — their love is entirely innocent. It’s not without physical manifestations, however, such as the unforgettable scene when Melisande tosses her long golden tresses from a tower for Pelleas to erotically caress.

When Melisande dies after giving birth to a daughter, the tortured Golaud is left with the uncertainty of whether the child is his.

The production’s highest honor goes to conductor Bertrand de Billy who, with the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, brings far more tension and dramatic coherency from the orchestra pit than Pelly’s bland, monotonous staging. De Billy also shows a sensitivity to his cast almost unheard of in opera: every syllable can be clearly understood, making the best case for Maeterlinck.

Dessay has not yet found her way into what may be the most mysterious character in classical opera. Vocally, the role fits her light lyric soprano to a T, and there are unforgettable moments such as Melisande’s whispered sigh of love for Pelleas. But only time will tell if Dessay can create a complete portrait of this enigmatic character.

Degout and Naouri have had years to perfect their interpretations, delivering deep, finely nuanced portraits of the respective embodiments of innocent love and its jealous, possessive counterpart. Vocally, it would be hard to think of competition.

Ens lacks the vocal heft needed for Arkel, and Marie-Nicole Lemieux the sheer tonal beauty for Genevieve’s single extended solo. Petite soprano Ritter delights as Yniold, turning off her operatic chops and doing a convincing job, vocally and physically, as a prepubescent male child.

Dessay seemed visibly upset during the opening-night curtain calls, rushing offstage before her colleagues. Hopefully, she won’t give up on Melisande. With more experience, it could turn into one of her best career moves.

Pelleas et Melisande

Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria; 1,000 seats; E140 $185 top

  • Production: A Theater an der Wien presentation of an opera in five acts with music by Claude Debussy, libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck. Directed by Laurent Pelly. Conducted by Bertrand de Billy.
  • Crew: Sets, Chantel Thomas; costumes, Pelly; lighting, Joel Adam. Opened, reviewed Jan. 13, 2009. Running time: 3 HOUR, 5 MIN.
  • Cast: Melisande … Natalie Dessay Pelleas … Stephane Degout Golaud … Laurent Naouri Arkel … Phillip Ens Genevieve … Marie-Nicole Lemieux Yniold … Beate Ritter Doctor, Shepherd … Tim Mirfin