We know from Maeterlinck's play Arianne and Bluebeard (on which the opera is based) that Melisande has escaped from Bluebeard - a mass murderer who let his wives live as long as they were strictly obedient, after which he slaughtered them and stored their bodies in a room in his castle. Other than that we have only tiny hints about Melisande's past. Golaud sees a golden crown in the pool and she says she has thrown it away; when he offers to retrieve it she has hysterics.
Instead of achieving his destination, marrying the princess and ending the troubles that beset his kingdom, Golaud marries Melisande. The famine continues: scenes of starving peasants appear throughout the rest of the story.
When Golaud takes Melisande home to his castle she recoils from the place. She has no specific complaints but seems to instinctively feel that it is rotten. Despite her revulsion, Melisande forms deep connections with two people in her new home: her husband's grandfather (the king), and her husband's half-brother, Pelleas. As the latter friendship deepens, Golaud can't decide if the relationship is adulterous or not. He goes back and forth between believing they are deceiving him and believing that their friendship is that of children. There is a history to his fears: he and Pelleas are half-brothers because when Golaud's father died, his mother married her husband's brother. Is history repeating itself?
As Golaud increasingly tends towards jealousy he treats Melisande with greater barbarity, forcing her to her knees and dragging her by her hair.
The enigmatic symbols in the play are largely locational: the forest, the sea and clear pools of water appear over and over, reinforcing the sense that we're in a fairy tale that is heavy with symbolism. Another recurring fairy tale symbol is Melisande's long hair.
It is strange that the recent Canadian Opera Company production of Pelleas et Melisande did not use the set for any effect but logistic functionality. The set was ugly - all beige, black and white, with an upper level that looked like a dock and a lower level that was covered in cheap-looking clear plastic sheets (resembling water, but used as dry land in the action). The music has a melancholy bleakness that could have been enhanced by colorful lighting and a beautiful set; the enigmatic qualities of the opera could have been intriguing and mysterious, but instead veered towards pointless and boring. Some audience members around me left at the interval.
Musically, the production was very good. The title roles can be sung by a tenor or baritone and a soprano or mezzo-soprano, respectively. Russell Braun, as a baritone with a high range (and one of my all-time favorite singers), is the perfect Pelleas. His interpretation was both complex and naturalistic. (It's no wonder he has sung Pelleas at Salzburg, La Scala, Glyndebourne and Hamburg.) His clothing hampered his interpretation: he didn't really work as a romantic hero until he lost the skullcap, and he was dressed too much like Golaud for those of us in the cheap seats.
Isabel Bayrakdarian is also one of my favorite singers, and she did an admirable job, but her clear pretty voice didn't add much to the role. I could imagine a mezzo singing the role, or a soprano with a darker voice - like Anna Netrebko. There were no spine-tingling moments in Bayrakdarian's performance and no air of disturbing mystery. Melisande seemed bored and unhappy, but she should have a much more fundamental, if enigmatic, role. Melisande could be a cursed woman who is plagued by rot or an evil woman who is the source of rot, but she shouldn't be an idle bystander who just drifts along as bad things happen to her.
The libretto positions the setting as a castle that rises between the forest and the sea. Golaud looks towards the forest and sees wolves. Pelleas and Melisande look towards the ocean and see the sun. The COC production ignored this completely.
The three pools in the opera are so prominent that the production couldn't ignore them, but it certainly didn't make anything of them. The first pool, in the forest, is clear enough that Golaud and Melisande can see her golden crown glinting at the bottom. The second pool, in a grotto near the sea, is again clear enough that Pelleas and Melisande can see Melisande's gold wedding ring glinting from the bottom after she carelessly drops it in. I think of those two pools as Melisande's and Pelleas's, respectively. The third pool is definitely Golaud's. It is murky and has a nauseating smell of rotting flesh. When Golaud shows Pelleas this pool it seems his intent is murderous, but he stops himself at the last moment.
Pelleas et Melisande is an opera that requires interpretation. It must probably always be ambiguous, and it could be interpreted in many ways: to show the clash of male and female principles; the barbarity that lurks hidden in some individuals; the consequences of passing up a chance at salvation. Melisande could be a temptress who bewitched both Golaud and Pelleas or a fatally damaged soul who lives but is dead inside or the last hope for national salvation; a canker or a rose. There is so much that could be done with this opera, but the COC - frustratingly - didn't even seem to try.