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Psychological Slow Burn: Debussy's 'Pelléas and Mélisande'

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woo-1633-pelleas-storyWhen the word "operatic" is used to describe something other than opera, it's usually not something that could also be called subtle -- and that's hardly surprising.

As a whole, opera itself is seldom considered subtle. Opera is large-scale entertainment, played in broad strokes with over-the-top theatrics. When it comes to staging, for example, opera companies often pull out all the stops, fielding the largest choruses possible and exploiting every available technology to create dazzling, on-stage special effects.

And that's not to mention the emotional content of opera, which is also famous for excess, portraying extremes of passion, vengeance and pure hatred.  The list goes on and on. Take the title character in Verdi's Rigoletto, for example.  He pays an assassin who inadvertently kills Rigoletto's own daughter, then dumps the corpse at her father's feet in a burlap sack. Then there's Puccini's Tosca. She stabs the bad guy, then watches the results with increasing satisfaction, all the while urging him to choke on his own blood. It's no wonder that at least one dictionary defines the term "operatic" as meaning "histrionic or implausible."

Surely, though, that definition sells the art form short. Opera can certainly be extreme at times -- a lot of the time, really. But think about it: It's not so much the extremity of opera's emotions that moves us, but their intensity. And intense emotion doesn't need to be loud, vengeful or vitriolic. It can also be quiet, deep and profound. And that's the territory Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande explores.

Debussy based his opera on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, which the composer praised for having both a "dream-like atmosphere" and "more humanity than those so-called 'real life documents'" -- perhaps a jab at the heart-on-sleeve "verismo" operas of composers such as Puccini.

In Pelléas, Debussy defied opera's conventions -- or at least its stereotypes. The drama is murky, played out in a moody world of muted colors and subtle tension. There's very little that's extreme. But when it comes to intensity, Debussy had that covered from beginning to end. The entire opera is a sort of psychological, slow burn.

On World of Opera, Lisa Simeone presents Pelléas and Mélisande, Debussy's only completed opera, from the 2016 Aix-en-Provence Festival.  Soprano Barbara Hannigan and baritone Stéphane Degout star in the title roles, with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Philharmonia Orchestra.