In Pelléas et Mélisande at the Santa Fe Opera, director Netia Jones’s contemporary aesthetics renew Debussy’s mystifying Symbolist opera for present-day audiences.
Pelléas et Mélisande
July 15–August 18, 2023
Santa Fe Opera
The forest is an ominous, cloistered place in composer/librettist Claude Debussy and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Its shadows and recesses lend themselves to secrets and things left unsaid or unheard. In the Santa Fe Opera’s 2023 staging, Pelléas opens with a scene in which Golaud (played by Zachary Nelson) comes upon the titular Mélisande (Samantha Hankey) while both are lost in one such dark wood. Mélisande wears a bright orange dress and a blonde bob, à la Mad Men. She shines in the darkness. She’s crying as before her a woman—who looks exactly like her—floats, dead, down the stream (or is that part of a dream?).
Golaud learns she has fled another family, and that she has cast her crown into the water and refuses to let him retrieve it. This is about all we ever learn about Mélisande’s story and who she might be. And throughout, her personality is only ever partially revealed. She marries Golaud for reasons unknown—I guess being lost in a forest is rather an unsuitable alternative. She goes on to entertain an ill-fated affair with Golaud’s younger half-brother, Pelléas (Huw Montague Randall) (or does she? It’s never clear). She loses her husband’s ring in a well (by accident? on purpose?). Golaud kills Pelléas in a fit of jealous rage (but he second-guesses his own jealousy). Mélisande gives birth to a daughter. She dies (of a wound? of childbirth? heartbreak?).
The love-triangle plot of Pelléas is conventional, but it’s saturated with ambiguity—and it wasn’t exactly popular with mainstream audiences when it premiered as a play in 1893 or as an opera in 1902. Its lifeblood springs from its frustrating embrace of suggestion, slippage, and the psychic pain it inflicts on the characters (and us) as they move like shadows through a world on which they seem powerless to enact their wills. Under Netia Jones’s direction, SFO’s presentation of Pelléas renews and contemporizes the work’s pursuit of placelessness and timelessness with high-tech projections, costume design both futuristic and archaic, and a minimal, nimble set.
Projections of heavy, dappled tree canopies shroud the stage while Mélisande remarks on the oppressive wooded land, its lack of light, and its want of fresh air. Interior scenes communicate a family and a household in a state of cold grayness. The walls are embedded with spinning exhaust fans and warehouse lighting (hardly the grandeur of a castle). Arkel (Raymond Aceto), the patriarch, is sickly in a wheelchair and breathing with an oxygen tank, while a nurse in white scrubs tends to him. During interior scenes, projections fill the space with markers of industrialization, geometry, and science—the coding of an unfeeling matrix. A room-sized terrarium filled with meager plants is the only sign of life here.
Costumery connotes personalities and archetypes. Golaud’s rakish hunting cape later reveals staid, dark green combat attire. Pelléas dons a bright green millennial hoodie. Golaud’s young son Yniold (played by eleven-year-old Kai Edgar) wears a lime-green windbreaker, an easy symbol of youth and vitality. Now burdened with a domineering husband and a graying family, Mélisande’s prim, modern orange dress becomes a dark, orange-green ombre.
In her most luminous moment, when Pelléas woos her at her tower window, Mélisande appears in a shimmering silver gown, her hair long and wild, but the gown’s effect is that of a fantasy, not any real change in her circumstances. Later, Pelléas adopts a jacket in orange-green ombre, as though he’s caught a compulsion for the wild forest from his maybe-lover. In the end, Mélisande appears in a floor-length green gown, fully enveloped by her fate.
We cannot affix the narrative in time any more than we can ascertain the characters’ motives, dreams, or fears. They appear not as humans with agency, but as placeholders. They are made into doubles, literally, by the use of doppelgängers. Shadow actors perform many of the scenes in reverse upstage from the central action. They do not mirror exactly, but they reflect a subdued version of the drama, creating tension between the conscious and subconscious, what is manifest and what is latent, in parallel with other binaries between bright and dark, forest and castle, life and decay, that color the opera throughout.
Jones’s attention to this slippery unfixedness gives proper due to the opera’s origins in the Symbolist movement, the short-lived art movement in the late 19th century of which Maeterlinck was a noted playwright and by which Debussy was influenced. In a Symbolist’s work, literalism is rejected, and the ideal, archetypal “truth” of a thing is communicated through metaphor and, well, symbols, as though through a veil.
The elusive contours of the opera’s characters, its suggestive dialogue (communicated not through grand musical numbers but through relative restraint), and its mystifying, watery mise-en-scène present a world and cast that are unpinnable, unknowable. Mélisande is certainly the unwitting, unbidden catalyst. But to what end? Her daughter may represent hope, but she is born into unresolved tragedy. The experience of Pelléas may be a kind of Gestalt therapy, a kind of role-playing technique in which we learn nothing of the fictional Pelléas and Mélisande, but learn something new about ourselves during the encounter.
Performances of Pelléas et Mélisande continue on August 3, 9, and 18. New Mexico residents who are first-time ticket buyers are eligible for a 40%; call the box office in advance.