Debussy’s elusive love triangle

Zachary Coates and Kelly Ann Bixby portray the troubled spouses Golaud and Mélisande in the Debussy opera.

By Lacey Colby

The only opera to ever be completed by Debussy will reach the Westminster stage this weekend.

Westminster students will perform  Pelléas et Mélisande under the guidance of stage director Marc Verzatt and music director Daniel Beckwith.

The opera begins when Mélisande (graduate student Kelly Ann Bixby), a young woman with a mysterious past, is found in the woods by Prince Golaud (alumnus Zachary Coates), who is immediately captivated by her. Despite knowing nothing about who — or what — she is, Golaud soon marries her and brings her to his grandfather’s castle in Allemonde with him. There, Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas (graduate student Chris Hodson) and Mélisande develop a close relationship. Golaud becomes jealous, and his reaction yields tragic results.

According to graduate student Justine Aronson, who plays Golaud’s son Yniold, Verzatt described Mélisande to the cast as a character not of this world, as opposed to her husband Golaud, who is a representation of the earthly and manly. Pelléas exists somewhere between the two. Aronson said that Pelléas and Mélisande have a “spiritual affair,” rather than a physical one, in which Mélisande helps him leave the earthly world.

Hodson elaborated on his character’s relationships with Mélisande and Golaud.

“Pelléas is a character who is in constant conflict,” Hodson said. “Along with Mélisande, he represents an innocence and naïveté that is indicative of the younger generation within the story. Unlike Mélisande, who is completely detached from this world, Pélleas is half in, half out. Throughout the opera, he feels the need to leave but is tied down by his connection to his half-brother and the obligations imposed on him by his station in life.”

Though Westminster is full of talented vocalists, putting on the Debussy opera is still a demanding task.

“The challenge of this opera was the timing within the music for entrances, both musically and staging-wise,” said graduate student Meagan Johnson, a chorus member. “Debussy incorporated motives that represent the various symbols throughout the opera, which line up with specific staging by Marc Verzatt.”

Johnson, Aronson and Hodson agreed on the difficulty of performing an opera entirely in French.

“You have to know every word you’re saying,” Aronson said.

Without understanding their French, the performers can’t deliver the words with the correct emotions or emphasis.
Hodson also explained that the music presented other challenges for the cast.

“Debussy wrote this opera to literally be Maeterlinck’s drama Pelléas et Mélisande set to music and, as such, the music is completely subservient to the text,” Hodson said. “The melodies rise and fall with the inflections of the language so there are no ‘tunes’ to latch on to when you are learning the role; that and the sheer volume of French text that you have to memorize makes this a monster role.”

The cast members expect Pelléas et Mélisande to be a great emotional and intellectual experience. Johnson hopes that audience members will attend the lecture before Friday’s performance in order to grasp the symbolism while they experience the “exquisite music” of the opera.

“People will enjoy being completely immersed in the drama through the gorgeous music of Debussy,” Hodson said. “Isn’t that why we go to an opera or a play or a movie, for that matter? We want to be transported to a fantastical place. We want to want to watch the drama unfold before our eyes and to be a part of that drama.”

Tickets for the opera are $20 for adults and $15 for students/seniors. There will be a lecture for ticket holders tonight at 7 p.m.

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