Is Claude Debussy’s one and only opera a neglected masterpiece? It is certainly neglected, I fear, because it is difficult to readily find a cast of singing actors who can act with conviction and sing in flawless French in a middle of the road range that’s not all that enticing to singers who like to display their vocal prowess at any cost.
The central role of Pelléas, for instance is written for what the French call a Baryton Martin, a rare species of singer that requires comfort in both the E-F-G area at the top of the staff, where baritones love to shine, and in the tricky lower middle voice in which most baritones fail to score points, and in which they are often swallowed by even the slightest of orchestrations. Neither a soprano nor a mezzo-soprano part, Mélisande is written for what should be a lyric voice, but one with some heft in the middle range in which most of the role lies. To make matters more difficult, singers for both of these roles should look young and attractive so as to convincingly play a young prince and princess secretly in love with each other. Oh yes, and they should be good actors.
Pelléas and Mélisande rarely turns up these days in America, as much too intimate an opera for the average American plus-size opera house, and one much too dependent on its poetic prose text to make any kind of impact on audiences weaned on a steady diet of Puccini and Verdi. Too bad that this operatic rarity does not get more play on this side of the ocean, for it has much to offer to those willing to open their minds and ears to Debussy’s musical language.
Therefore, grateful thanks are due to Maestro Louis Langrée, who devised a few years ago a three-year programming plan that has included Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas and Mélisande and Arnold Schoenberg’s tone poem of the same title, and now Debussy’s opera. Langrée’s passion for and full command of Debussy’s score were in evidence as he led the extraordinary ensemble of players that is the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Stage director James Darrah came on board in the company of projection designer Adam Larsen, scenic designer Adam Rigg, costume designer Mattie Ullrich, and lighting designer Pablo Santiago, all four of whom set out to turn the stage of the newly-renovated Music Hall into an operatic one. Unfortunately the results were less than perfect, with the playing area literally surrounding the musicians and all but making the orchestra a distraction rather than a partner in the story of several human beings in search of a raison d’être.
Opera is first and foremost storytelling through music. Or, rather, opera should not tell us but show us the story. The staging should flesh out the tale in strong images that clarify the time and the place and the emotional state of the characters. It should dress the actors in costumes that let us in on who they are and what they feel and in what country and to which period of history they belong.
If rear projections must be used when stage machinery is deemed clunky and obstructive, let those images behind the actors define where we are. Is this the grotto by the side of the pool where Mélisande loses her wedding ring, or is this the tower from where her hair cascades down to reach and envelop her lover?
And the lighting, at its most basic level, should light the singing actors, especially their faces. At its most heightened stage the stage lights should help define location and time of day, echoing in sunlight and moonlight and shadow what the music is expressing. In this staging of Pelléas and Mélisande all of those production elements left something missing, as a numbing, generic sameness set in after a first half that clocked in at one hour and forty-five minutes.
The cast was led by Irish Mezzo-soprano, Naomi O’Connell and the Canadian baritone Phillip Addis as the ill-fated lovers. Ms. O’Connell, visually lovely and full-voiced delivered a haunting a capella song in the tower scene of Act III. Adddis, on the other hand appeared to be struggling with the high-lying passages in the role, and acted listlessly rather than youthfully as the innocent Pelléas.
Baritone, Brian Mulligan was a vocally and dramatically impressive Golaud, quietly dangerous even in moments of self-control, conflicted and compassionate when calm.
The cast of principals was rounded out by Richard Wiegold as King Arkel, and Mezzo-Soprano Nancy Maultsby as Geneviève.
In his diaries Debussy wrote about how he sought to find a musical language …dont la sensibilité pourrait être étendue dans la musique et dans la toile de l’orchestre… (“a language whose sensibility could encompass both the music itself and the weave of the orchestration…”) In the CSO’s production of Debussy’s score only the musical part of that language was palpable. If only we could have had the entire tapestry…
A few more things and a disclaimer
The acoustics of Music Hall have never sounded better. Both singers and orchestra were heard clearly. Debussy’s gossamer moments in the orchestration as well as several climactic outbursts were distinctive, present, with the lower strings notably more nourished than they sounded two weeks ago.
The seating on the first balcony where we ended up after years of sitting in the rear of the orchestra for many CSO concerts, is as shy on leg room as I have ever encountered in many years of concert-going. After a first half that ran close to one hour and forty-five minutes, we left, unable to sit there any longer.
Will Call is no longer in the lobby of Music Hall but in an adjacent area that requires negotiating steps challenging for those of us with motion disabilities. The Music Hall management may want to check up some of the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Cup holders have been affixed to the backs of orchestra seats, though not to those in the upper balconies, but a sign in the counter of lobby bar warns the concertgoers that “Iced Drinks May Not Be Taken Inside the Auditorium” So, what are the cup holders for? Lukewarm cocktails and soft drinks..?
Parking underground across from Music Hall will set you back $15. Someone is gauging the public that the CSO is trying to bring to its concerts.
Rafael de Acha RafaelMusicNotes.com October 21, 2017