Thursday, July 13, 2000

Opera's 'Melisande' follows her fascination

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When she was 18 and entering the Music Academy in Bucharest, Romania, Ruxandra Donose had to make a choice. Piano or voice? Should she become a concert pianist or an opera singer?

        She had won national and international piano competitions. She had performed with orchestras. But she could not study both. Her parents, both musicians, tried to reason with her. “Don't fly after a dream,” they told her.

        When she chose opera, they were skeptical.

  • What: Cincinnati Opera, Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande (company premiere), Nicholas Muni, director; Stephane Deneve, conductor; baritone Jean-Francois Lapointe (Pelleas); mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose (Melisande); baritone David Pittman-Jennings(Golaud); mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee (Genevieve); Malcolm Smith (Arkel the King); Elizabeth Skillings (Yniold). Designed by Dany Lyne; Thomas C. Hase, lighting.
  • When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday.
  • Where: Music Hall.
  • Tickets: $12-$85. 241-2742.
        “As a pianist, I had a solid education. I knew where I stood. Whereas with singing, it was just believing that I could do it. It was just a feeling that I had,” the Romanian-born mezzo-soprano says.

        She had seen the look of amazement on her voice teacher's face the first time she opened her mouth.

        “Then I found that I liked it a lot, being able to express myself so directly,” she says. “I was fascinated by this, but it was very, very new. I was at the beginning of a long process of work.”

        That process has taken Ms. Donose through a large number of opera roles, from Monteverdi to Strauss. She made her Metropolitan opera debut last season as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. Tonight, she will sing Melisande in the Cincinnati Opera premiere of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande.

        It is the 12th in an impressive string of new roles she has learned in the last two years.

        “I like French music. As a pianist I played Debussy; I played Ravel,” Ms. Donose says between rehearsals at Music Hall. Although she is not in costume, she looks the part of Melisande, her long blond hair streaming past her shoulders.

        “I won't use my own hair,” she laughs. “I like the fact that the whole character is so challenging. It's an opera for thinkers.”

        In the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, Melisande is a beautiful but mysterious young woman, who is found weeping in the forest by Prince Golaud. He marries her and brings her to his grandfather's castle. There, Melisande meets Golaud's brother, Pelleas. They fall instantly — but silently — in love.

        In the production directed by Nicholas Muni, Melisande will be dressed in red.

        “The castle is dark, and has no sun, no joy really,” Ms. Donose explains. “She comes as a ray of light, of youth, of color.”

        And in the famous scene of Act III, where Melisande leans out of the tower and her long blond tresses are passionately kissed by Pelleas, Ms. Donose's locks will not reach all the way to her lover.

        “If he doesn't touch her hair, it's more on the level of a game between two children who are pretending,” she says.

        The role is challenging because “it requires very good knowledge of the French language, great vocal flexibility, a very good ear, and it moves in a range that seems easy, but it's not,” she says.

        “The three men — Arkel, Golaud and Pelleas — have incredible music to sing. It's dramatic, it's romantic, it's wonderful. But Melisande doesn't. She just has to be there, keeping the tension without saying that much.”

        Ms. Donose is comfortable in French, one of the five languages she speaks. (The others are English, German, Italian and Romanian.) The daughter of a music theory teacher and a composer/musicologist, she started piano lessons at age 6.

        When she began singing, she soon was winning vocal contests. But, despite a fine musical education, she had no role models, no famous teachers to help her navigate the difficult operatic career path.

        In her formative years, Romania was experiencing turbulent political times. The bloody fall of Communism took place in 1989.

        “We couldn't just go and see (opera singers). People wouldn't come and sing there. I listened to a lot of recordings, and saw a lot of videotapes. In Romania, that was the only way to see what was happening in the world,” she says.

        In 1990, she won the ARD International Vocal Competition in Munich. In 1992, when she won a contract in the company ensemble of the Vienna State Opera, she left Romania.

        “It was a great chance, because I was there with zero experience!” she laughs. “I started with smaller roles, but it gave me the opportunity to go onstage with the great singers of our day like (tenors) Alfredo Kraus, (Luciano) Pavarotti and (Placido) Domingo, a wonderful orchestra and good conductors,” she says.

        Although she left the company two years ago to expand her work, she still lives in Vienna with her husband, opera director Peter Pawlik.

        She is one of a new generation of opera singers, who enjoys acting as much as singing.

        “In opera, you have music, singing, acting, lights, sets, costumes — it's everything. You come to the opera to see all these things, and not just people who stand and sing. I think the new generation of singers are aware of this, and producers are aware of this,” she says.

        Pelleas et Melisande will transport the audience to “a different world,” she says.

        “It will look very beautiful in a strange way, and we will all be characters who move in a strange space. It's extremely beautiful music, and it is passionate singing.

        “It is an emotional journey.”


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