Certain stagings expand the meaning of an operatic work, and I think the Against the Grain’s Pélleas managed to accomplish that and with very few resources at its disposal. The ‘set’–an inner courtyard in a downtown red brick building covered in ivy—contained an intimate, claustrophobic family drama reminiscent of Ibsen, who was after all Debussy’s and Maeterlinck’s contemporary. The costumes hinted at that epoch as well—the family members all wore stylized Victoriana outfits in many hues of blue, apart from Mélisande who, being a freer, woodland creature before being taken in, wore a looser, water-waves-like dress. There have been some interesting stagings of P&M in Europe lately, some involving Hitchcock and psychoanalysis, but they tend to add stuff to the piece, whereas AtG shed and distilled as much as possible. The simplicity of the text stood out, and its applicability across eras and cultures. P&M, then, could indeed be about the everyday-existential: how to communicate your love; how to break free from one’s family and communal narrative; how to accept the always wanting designation of ‘woman’ or ‘man’ without going raving crazy.
And that is what a lot of Ibsen and Strindberg are about too. Many of the great dramas, including P&M, respond to the above questions this way: always deficiently; you can’t; good luck with that. The close-quarters and the no exit feel of this production adds tension to all this—when nothing in the set ever changes, there is nowhere new to look at but the two individuals at an impasse talking but not being able to say much. (Je ne suis pas heureuse, Mélisande keeps saying, and nobody hears her. I’m the only person here who has this family’s best interests at heart, yells Golaud but people carry on. Why are all these young people so weird, this isn’t gonna finish well, moans Arkel and nobody pays attention. *Smiling benevolently, reconciled to her powerless role*, Geneviève.) Much is made of the many silences and the pauses between the words. Director Joel Ivany also uses the found constraints of the courtyard ground productively: the characters can only move along the limited flagstone pathways, since the lawn stands in for water, but also a sphere of the uncontrolled and the uncharted. The crossing into a freer territory, as we see at the end, tends to come too late. [edited to add: The pathways were created by the production designer Camellia Koo]
The singing and the acting were uniformly good. Miriam Khalil found the right tone for Mélisande, who remains an anguished enigma till the end. Why does she drop the ring—is she an unreliable, trivial creature, or was that an act of resistance, however feeble? Why is Golaud irrationally attached to the ring? (Which rules of family comportment and kinship are *not* arbitrary and *not* benefiting the men?) Etienne Dupuis’s Pélleas was pitch-perfect as the young Romantic hero, sensitive, emotional, the second-born in the primogeniture society, the recurring character in opera—the-patriarchy-eats-its-sons-too figure. Gregory Dahl was an excellent Golaud, the character with most agency (and even most personality), but least self-knowledge, and therefore inviting our compassion against our better judgement. The young mezzo Andrea Núñez was a great choice for Yniold—beside the bell-like bright-timbred voice, her acting really made us believe we’re looking at a boy, a deferring, frightened one but also playful and irreverent when he dares. At the piano, Julien LeBlanc, guest music director, made sure we didn’t miss the orchestra too much.
Photography by Darryl Block. Top: Miriam Khalil and Gregory Dahl. Bottom: Dahl and Etienne Dupuis