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Musings: Of Debussy, dreams and discourse that challenges

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 6, 2011 - In 1899, Sigmund Freud's sensational work "The Interpretation of Dreams" was published in Leipzig and Vienna. "Die Traumdeutung," as it is called in German, presented Freud's theories of the manifest and latent content of dreams, which is to say content that is recognizable as restatements or representations of waking or "real" experiences and the more complicated content that grows out of the unconscious, that department of our personalities where there be dragons.

Freud said "The Interpretation of Dreams" was an accomplishment the likes of which would come only once in a lifetime. In his introduction to the book he wrote, "In the following pages I shall provide proof that there is a psychological technique which allows us to interpret dreams, and that when this procedure is applied, every dream turns out to be a meaningful, psychical formation which can be given an identifiable place in what goes on within our waking life."

Dreams, he said, paved the Royal Road to the unconscious and thus to the varied topology we call human personality.

About two years later the French modernist composer Claude Debussy brought an opera called "Pelleas and Melisande" to the stage of the Opera-Comique in Paris. It was unlike any opera ever seen before. As is usually the situation with anything new, especially something as radically new as "Pelleas and Melisande," there was, especially at the final rehearsals, the expected usual booing and hissing (more about that later).

But as performances continued for more than three months, the opera went from strength to strength although not along the paths expected of it. The work must have appeared to Parisian audiences as a dream-like state. Besides there being no prelude and no big arias, instead a strung together series of recitatives, things were not as they seemed to be, and uncertainty had a starring role.

Debussy had departed radically from his Conservatoire training. One of his teachers had been the traditionalist and highly respected New Orleans-born composer-pedagogue, Ernest Guiraud. In an amusing and rather sweet exchange, but one indicating how radical a departure Debussy had taken from the conservative conservatory strictures, Guiraud and Debussy discussed what the younger man was up to musically.

The student played a series of chords on the piano. Guiraud asked, "What's that?" and Debussy replied, "Incomplete chords, floating. One can travel where one wishes and leave by any door. Greater nuances." Later, Debussy told the teacher, "There is no theory. You have to listen. Pleasure is the law."

As true with so much that was going on around 1900 throughout the vast and impossible to simplify worlds of art, music, architecture, politics, philosophy, science and so on, change, often radical change, was the determining norm, and resistance thus was to be expected. The new, however, came to prevail, and it reset cultural agendas as much as any transformative artistic accomplishment in history. Although, as commentator Caroline Waight noted, the composer Jules Massanet called Debussy an enigma, that is better certainly than being described as a fraud. In an effort to get to the heart of this affecting, unsettling work, that received its opening night on Sunday at Opera Theatre, the notion of enigma is useful in making general statements in a discussion pf the opera.

Act I of "Pelleas and Melisande" is a tour de force of enigma. Unfortuately, but unavoiable, what appeared to some members of the audience to be incomprehensibly enigmatic, and occasioning a departure at intermission, was put in relative order in Act II. The opera is based, rather literally, on Maurice Polydor, Count Maeterlinck's,play, a symbolist masterpiece. Like Freud's Royal Road, one can make various interpretations of the situations presented in symbolist works: For example, that stairway to nowhere on which Pelleas sits in this production of "Pelleas and Melisande" may mean something quite different to me than it does to you. Although Freud assigned certain rather inflexible meanings to some latent dream material -- stairways among them -- in fact,  interpretations are open. In the process of a thorough and successful psychoanalysis, dreams are revealed to be incredibly layered with meanings, and thus per se quite meaningful themselves -- but fugitive. Over the course of the required rigorous years of treatment, what is the "truth" of some symbol or another can change considerably in analysis.

Enigma is an uncomfortable, disconcerting, disorienting state and trying to keep up with what appeard on the stage in Act I, and to tease sense out it, was almost exhausting. Who are these characters? Why is that mysterious woman in the woods? What is going on inside the castle, with the king of it carrying around his mysterious box? Is it the sort of box Queen Elizabeth II receives daily with important papers of state? And what does it means when the box is revealed to be empty? Who is that pathetic, hanging-in-the-background boy? Who is the James Joyce-looking character seated against the wall? And how does any of this relate to this lawless music Debussy described, which strays from the action of the opera, except as enigmatically?

In confronting enigma, I found meaning and relief in applying the notion of dreaming to "Pelleas and Melisande" in the first act, and the revelations of the second act as an analytical achievement of a special and intensely braided triad composed of  the singers and orchestra and the designers of the production. Using dreaming as a standard, we come to accept that what is happening is irrational, that metaphorical doors have been opened into a kingdom, Allemonde (all worlds?), in which the Old King, Arkel, is slipping away. His deeply disturbed, probably psychopathic grandson, Golaud, is revealed in Act I to be lost in more ways than one, a condition that becomes more pronounced and destructive in Act II. Prince Golaud discovers the waif Melisande in the woods; she is portrayed by Corinne Winters as psychosexually disturbed.

Nevertheless Melisande marries Golaud. In a series of symbolic acts, such as "losing" her wedding ring in a fountain, and overt acts as well, she reveals her antipathy to the Prince. She falls in love with the noble, gentle but doomed Pelleas, Golaud's brother, and, of course, no good comes of that romance, except perhaps the birth of a baby.

As this dysfunctionality persists on its tragic, cyclonic path, Debussy's music continues on its intoxicatingly rapturous way under the baton of Stephen Lord. This music is rather like a stream, a sonorous symbolic flow of the unconsciousness, moving unceasingly beneath the action, supporting it rather than actively participating in it. In "Pelleas and Melisande," Debussy put a vast distance between his music and his opera and his colleagues the romantics, especially Richard Wagner and his powerful, monumental music dramas. In "Pelleas and Melisande," no motifs identify the approach of the fratricidal Golaud, or the physical and emotional ravishing of the mad innocent Melisande. They are not there.

Nor does the music prefigure the heartbreaking catastrophe that is to befall the boy Yniold. In "Pelleas and Melisande," Yniold stands directly under the stem of a funnel into which is poured a psychologically toxic potion of loss, hatred, insanity and corruption, and finally a half-sister, whom he hold tight. In a opera where everything goes wrong for all, wrong flows like lava through the funnel and onto the tiny person of Yniold. Our sense is, as the music floats into the evening, Yniold is doomed.

A couple of things occurred to me as I walked into the night and away from this incredible musical, dramatic and intellectual experience.

First, a recommendation. Every once in a while, by plan or coincidence, two separate but absolutely related shows grow enormously in value by proximity. So, for everyone captivated by the psychological challenges and bounties of "Pelleas and Melisande" should make haste to visit the splendid exhibition "Dreamscapes" now at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in Grand Center.

Francesca Herndon-Consagra, senior curator of the Pulitzer, organized the exhibition. As Pulitzer founder and chairman Emily Pulitzer wrote, the show "evokes thoughts and feelings about dreaming and altered states of consciousness." It features works by such artists as Rene Magritte, Philip Guston, Max Beckmann and Max Klinger. It includes a gallery-filling work by Do Ho Suh that would have fascinated Freud, "Staircase -- Pulitzer Version" from 2010.

The second revelation was about Opera Theatre of St. Louis itself.

This company has been nimble enough, over the years, to present balanced programs and consistently celestially high quality operas on its stage, and this judicious employment of the popular and the new or rarely performed has worked to its and to our advantage. The Festival repertory usually includes confections such as "The Daughter of the Regiment," and that is OK, although in fact, when compared to this production of "Pelleas" its dramatic and musical calories seem quite empty. But enough of that: along with such high-note foolishness as "The Daughter" are towering works of art such as "Pelleas and Melisande" that -- while not in the rarely performed category -- are not warhorses either, and when they appear to us, in productions as remarkable as this one, we are obliged to say thank you.

So along with bringing talented young singers early in their careers to the fore, and working hard to develop the voices of talented young St. Louisans, Opera Theatre has been fearless in its pursuit of quality, in this case, the presentation of a show so challenging and dark -- and so lacking the relief provided on Sunday night by a new moon that sliced a crescent in the sky. The company has in its three and a half decades of life assumed  infrastructural status in St. Louis, and ranks as resource that holds together what is good about us, and strong, and important.

Near the top of this piece I said that "Pelleas and Melisande" came in for vocal abuses when it was preparing to be presented formally in Paris almost 110 years ago. A vocal antagonism was heard again Sunday night. In 36 seasons of attending performances of operas produced by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, I cannot recall hearing booing, unless it were good-natured booing of some bad guy or another.

Sunday night, there was booing after the performance. There is a general assumption that the racket was not directed at the singers, because it did not commence until the director and designers came to the stage for their bows. It came from a lone member of the audience, standing near an exit.

Even so, in a season when civic dialogue has itself assumed a principal role at Opera Theatre, that sort of behavior is quite unbelievable, wouldn't you say?

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.