Peter Brook’s Liberties: Fewer With Debussy

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© The New York Times – By John Rockwell- November 14, 1992
In 1981 the Paris-based English director Peter Brook won hordes of new admirers — and shook up the staid world of opera — with his « Tragedy of Carmen. » As radically shortened and rearranged by his music director, Marius Constant, this 80-minute « Carmen » compaction sold out for months in Paris, then toured Europe and finally arrived in New York in 1983, playing in both French and later English at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

Now, several projects (including « The Mahabharata » play and film) later, Mr. Brook has come back to opera. His and Mr. Constant’s new operatic production, called « Impressions of Pelleas, » opened tonight at Mr. Brook’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, after being greeted by cheers and prolonged applause from invited Parisian movers and shakers at the three previous nights of previews.

Although this new effort, a version of Claude Debussy’s « Pelleas et Melisande, » may seem similar to the « Carmen, » it is in many respects very different, as Mr. Brook is the first to concede. « With ‘Carmen,’ one could take much greater liberties, » said the director in his intimate office, an upper room at the theater. « Not that one takes liberties for their own sake, but Debussy is much more exacting in every way. »

For their « Carmen, » Mr. Brook and Mr. Constant felt free to shuffle the order of scenes, toss out many entire numbers, reorchestrate the rest and, most radically, insert dialogue from the Prosper Merrimee novel and other sources. Snipping, Not Shuffling

Here they have snipped away nearly an hour of music (the performance lasts 90 uninterrupted minutes) but have otherwise presented Debussy’s opera as he wrote it. Even the reduction of the sumptuous orchestral part to two pianos isn’t so radical as it might seem. Mr. Constant took Debussy’s own piano version, which the composer had played for friends for years before finally orchestrating it, and — since it is so dense as to be almost unplayable by merely two hands — divided it into two parts for two pianists.

The effect, as played on two specially chosen, specially sonorous Bechsteins, is altogether Debussyian, full of mystic low rumblings as in the composer’s prelude for solo piano, « La Cathedrale Engloutie. » And the gains in intimacy and directness are considerable — just as they were in « The Tragedy of Carmen. »

Mr. Brook sees « Pelleas » as two operas. « Two works coexist here, » he argued. « For me, the orchestral version is a symphonic poem, and if the orchestra part is played for all it’s worth, it’s legitimate for it to swamp the words. That’s why it’s so great on records. »

But the other opera, the one Mr. Brook has staged, is an intimate series of hushed dialogues rising only at the climaxes to fully projected operatic passion. He sets the opera in a stripped-down fin de siecle living room, the characters gathering around the more prominent of the two pianos as for a Schubertiade. But then Melisande, played by a different Asian soprano in each of the three rotating casts, glides in dressed in a blood-red kimono. That casting decision seems an especially neat metaphor for the character’s otherworldly exoticism. Myth and the Hothouse

« One is always looking to find the compatible image, » Mr. Brook explained. « In the 19th century, gauze and fairies, as in ‘La Sylphide,’ genuinely touched the imagination. But today one has to accept that that simply doesn’t wash. If I made it 100 percent German medieval, the words and the performance of the music and the psychology wouldn’t set well together.

« There is a funny overlapping of two worlds in Debussy, those of myth and a kind of 19th-century hothouse. The hypersensitivity of Proust was as much in my mind as Debussy. Incredible passions were stifled by this closed world, and only a few artists were able to discover the finest shadings of emotions. »

In « Impressions of Pelleas » — the title is clearly a play on Impressionism — the mysterious, mythic triangle of innocent love and raging jealousy is played almost as a drawing-room charade, but one in which the intensity and immediacy of singing actors in a space far smaller than an opera house lend the action a primal power.

« When this red, Oriental figure comes in, it is partly an allusion to the Oriental kitsch of the time but also an anachronism, » Mr. Brook said. « It becomes a sort of Surrealism. The imagination begins to work on two levels at once. »

As with his « Carmen, » Mr. Brook is adamant that his rotating casts be perceived as different, not superior and inferior. Suffice it to say that in two casts seen on Tuesday and Thursday, both Melisandes (the Korean Jungwon Park, who was one of Mr. Brook’s Micaelas in « Carmen, » and the Chinese Ai-Lan Zhu) were first-rate, with Miss Park more tragically mysterious and Miss Zhu more girlishly sensual. Jean-Francois Lapointe, a Canadian baritone, made a particularly engaging, boyish Pelleas on Tuesday, and the veteran French bass Roger Soyer was a moving Arkel both nights. But there were no overt weak links either night. Americans and Destiny

Mr. Brook sees no problem in modern opera singers overpowering the music in this intimate setting; in fact, he insists that Debussy’s music and Maurice Maeterlinck’s drama could not be projected without such a technique.

« You could perform Lear’s mad scene on the heath for 20 people in this study, » he said, gesturing to the bookshelves and Asian artworks that overflow his office in Bohemian clutter. « But you would still need the same range and intensity. »

Will Americans be able to see « Impressions of Pelleas »?

« Who knows? » Mr. Brook answered. « I’m a great believer in destiny, so we’ll have to leave it to fate. » After the show ends its run at the Bouffes du Nord in January, it is booked for a 12-week tour of eight or nine European cities.

Mr. Brook is working on what he calls « a neurological subject, » a play about the human brain that involves « a tiny group but is a long, long work. » Then comes something even more ambitious: a « Mahabharata »-length exploration of the entire history of world theater.

That hardly means « Impressions of Pelleas » will be his farewell to opera. At the time of his « Carmen, » he spoke of doing both « Pelleas » and « The Magic Flute. » For the Mozart, he is determined to use a 24-piece orchestra (which Christoph von Dohnanyi has expressed an interest in conducting). Right now he can’t see a way to squeeze more than 14 musicians into the Bouffes du Nord. But he is still determined to figure out some way to do it, and once again puts his faith in destiny. Making Artifice Real

For Mr. Brook, though, there is ultimately no distinction between working with actors and opera singers, or in the balance between natural dramatic expression and the artifice of an ornate art form like opera. Debussy himself constantly sought a natural style of declamation from his singers, and Mr. Brook has carried that quest for true human expression to the limits that Debussy’s opera allows.

« I don’t believe there is such a thing as a true but artificial form, » he said. « In decadent art, the form takes over, and that has its admirers, as in kitsch today. But it’s inherently superficial, and it’s dangerous to accept and applaud artificiality as something in its own right.

« Japanese Noh, Kathakali, opera and ballet are particular forms that true artists can make real. I can cite my own experience: when I first saw Margot Fonteyn dance Giselle, or Ulanova as Juliet, I could believe that this was a real woman going mad, or a real 14-year-old girl.

« Even if one takes a photograph as being real, these were 100 percent convincing. With ‘Carmen,’ when the performances were good, which meant when the audiences were involved, it was more real than a lot of movies one sees. For me, any convention can be enlivened by a conviction that makes it real at the moment it happens. »

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