Esa-Pekka Salonen made his American conducting debut with the LA Philharmonic in 1984 at the tender age of 26. Back when LA Opera was still finding its sea legs, the orchestra wasn’t our strongest suit so whenever something really challenging was programmed they would hire the LA Phil. So the glorious David Hockney designed Tristan und Isolde, which was my first, in 1987 with Jeanine Altmeyer, Florence Quivar and Martti Talvela had Zubin Mehta and the Philharmonic spinning gold in the pit. The next year came Berg’s Wozzeck with Simon Rattle and his then-wife Elise Ross as Marie with a very abstract production and LA audiences stayed away in droves. 

But the company tried to lure the Rattles back again in 1995 with a proposed new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande directed by Peter Sellars. Then the divorce of Maestro and Mrs. Rattle and the double cancellation of all their upcoming engagements left an opening for the now LA Philharmonic Music Director Salonen to step in and save the day. He had conducted Pelléas once before and had already worked with Sellars on Messiaen’s St. Francois d’Assise in Salzburg, so he was on familiar ground.

Opening remarks in the long anticipated O.J. Simpson trial had literally been made two weeks prior to the premier of the LA Pelléas. Since we all know that Sellars has no interest in courting common scandal I’m sure it had no influence whatsoever on his decision to stage the production in an enormous cross section of a Malibu beach house. I am doubly certain that the casting of the esteemed Jamaican bass Willard White as Goloud was a mere coincidence. Hmmmm. I recall the musical side of the affair was very well received.

In 2003 under the directorship of Maestro Salonen the Philhrmonic decamped to their glorious new digs across the street from the Music Center at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. For all its silvery serpentine Frank Gehry glory however, the greatest contribution to its design was by Yasuhisa Toyota who, as the acoustician, designed the auditorium’s interior. It is a soaring, warm space that veritably hums all by itself. Even though it seats 2,200 people the stage area is so large and close in that nearly thirty percent of the audience sits over or around it.

Salonen was designated Conductor Laureate when he stepped down in 2009 and his return this season was to lead a small series of concerts inspired by 20th and 21st century French masterworks called “City of Light,” the centerpiece of which would be two semi-staged performances of Debussy’s Pelléas. So there was a general feeling of homecoming in the hall on Friday evening in anticipation of what promised to be a special return visit on many levels.

When we entered the darkened auditorium the stage and the seats behind it, along with the organ, where lit electric blue. White mannequins, all blindfolded, stood among the seats directly behind the stage and the singers ordered in quietly, at their leisure, with the musicians, taking their seats among the mannequins in the back and placed blindfolds across their faces.

Each act was prefaced by Kate Burton reading the words of the playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. Then, as the audience hushed, Maestro Salonen took the podium from where he had been sitting surreptitiously in the center of the orchestra all along.

What followed was a performance filled with great precision and a surprising amount of passion for a work whose reputation is primarily for nuance and symbolism. The hall itself played an important role in making this presentation the success it was. Allowing the singers voices to easily project their words out into the auditorium without having to force. The orchestra as well, open and free from a stage pit, was able to explore the full spectrum of color and shade in Debussy’s often delicate score. Ironic that the quietest opera ever written requires such massive forces.

A gala cast had been assembled and they did not disappoint, starting with the Yniold of Chloé Briot. Slight of build and wearing a flat cap, she was easily believable as the young son of Golaud and used her youthful soprano honestly without guile or coyness. Her contribution to the tower scene was especially compelling as she became more and more distressed over the demands of her father.

Dame Felicity Palmer was the mother Geneviéve and her reading of Golaud’s letter to Pelléas was a master class in the art of singing as communication. Her words sounded into the auditorium fully with ease and authority and her diction was exemplary. It only made me sorrier that her time on stage was so short.

The Golaud of that first production at LA Opera 20 years ago made a welcome return as the aged King Arkel. Sir Willard White brought a still virile and rich voice to the one character that can be considered the conscience of this story. His line reading of,”Si, j’étais Dieu, j’aurais pitié du coeur des hommes” was wrought with a simple sadness and he brought a mountain of tenderness to his interviews with Mélisande especially in the final scene with the presentation of the infant.

We were doubly blessed that the brothers of Maeterlinck’s story were both French singers with experience in their roles. Laurent Naouri’s Golaud started with a curious concern for Mélisande and then systematically disintegrated by his own jealous uncertainties until his final desperations in the last scene fulfilled his own tragic end. He bit into the text at times with a veiled hostility that brought a real menace to his interpretation.

The gruff, darker timbre of his bass-baritone was good contrast with the voice of Stéphane Degout as Pelléas his younger brother. I think this is the first time I’ve encountered a true Baryton-martin and Mr. Degout’s performance was infused with an earnest sincerity. His light-ish voice grew with an all enveloping ardor during both the scene at the tower and when he and Mélisande met outside the castle for the last time. The quality at the top of his range was very exciting and takes on a real tenor coloring that is extraordinary to hear live. Yet he managed to make his Pelléas a young man touched by love but still believably innocent of its stronger sexual component.

He was aided in this by the uncomplicated Mélisande of Camilla Tilling. She too remained childlike and safe from any baser feelings for Pelléas and was always believable in her responses to Golaud’s ever more desperate entreaties for the “truth.”

Her gossamer, well-focused soprano floated easily into the hall and her French was a model of clarity. She remained shy but genuine in her responses throughout the evening and her death was beautifully enacted standing with her back to the audience at times.. Ms. Tilling performed in a knee-length white-gold paisley dress which added to her general air of youthful virtue.

The staging by David Edwards kept everyone facing forward even in confrontation which wasn’t necessarily a stretch for the viewer but made harder work for the singers since they were often separated by the podium. Everyone moved and reacted with a directness of thought so there was never ambiguity as to what was happening.

Lighting designer Colin Grenfell made some very evocative color choices throughout. Most effective was when the moonlight broke into the cave in Act II and flooded the whole auditorium with a brilliant white glow. Elsewhere the gloomy darkness of the castle and forest pervaded.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic shimmered and surged throughout the evening under the constant care of Maestro Salonen and its performance was surely the greatest component of the whole. His was a warmly emotional reading and certainly not removed or over analytical. String tone was plush and clean and the two harps and timpani where especially alert and exquisitely judged in their playing. Curtain calls were an ecstatic affair and I can’t imagine seeing the equal of this performance for some time to come.

Photo © Craig T. Mathew | Mathew Imaging