Saturday, July 15, 2000

Opera review: Pelleas et Melisande


Debussy's 'Melisande' casts sensuous spell

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In the end, Golaud walked silently across the stage, and a red leaf fluttered down to the floor. It was a final, delicate touch that perfectly capped the evocative mood of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande and brought the tragedy of life, love and destiny full circle.

        It took almost a century for Debussy's only opera, Pelleas et Melisande, to come to Cincinnati. Nicholas Muni's production, originally designed for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, was provocative and, in many ways, a triumph for Cincinnati Opera.

        But it was Debussy's music, so exquisitely interpreted by Stephane Deneve and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, that left the lasting impression in Thursday's performance.

        The music was subtle yet sweeping, lush yet transparent. Against this, the characters of the opera were fleeting images of a changing canvas. It was the music that rounded out their personalities and gave shape to the interior quality of their drama.

        Because of its ambiguous nature, the opera's challenges are daunting. There are no arias — Debussy took his cue from Wagner's music dramas — and the director must sustain a slowly moving drama over five acts in three hours.

        The tale — a lover's triangle that ends in death — takes place in a fictitious kingdom. The middle-aged Prince Golaud stumbles upon the mysterious Melisande, brings her home and marries her. She then falls in love with his younger half-brother, Pelleas.

        Maurice Maeterlinck's play, on which Debussy based his opera, is laden with symbolism: a prince and a girl lost in a forest; a stagnant pool; a child trying to lift a boulder; lost sheep.

        The world created by Mr. Muni, with designer Dany Lyne, added to the symbolism and drew upon Eastern mysticism. The story mostly unfolded on a wooden bridge spanning the width of Music Hall's stage. The royals lived upstairs; the peasants below.

        When the bridge split, half of it rose to represent the tower in Act III. There, Melisande leaned over to cascade her hair down to Pelleas. It was the most sensuous, musically gorgeous love scene in the opera — but lifting Melisande so high that there was no contact lessened its impact.

        The voices were magnificent. Mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose was a stunning, red-headed Melisande, veiled and clad in crimson from head to toe in Act I; and in a red kimono-like gown as she writhed and dangled a bare leg in the tower. Projecting a vulnerable, youthful Melisande, she reacted naturally to those around her, and sang with velvety refinement.

        Quebec baritone Jean-Francois Lapointe was a superb Pelleas, his voice both fluid and virile. His final love scene in Act IV eloquently projected Pelleas' tension as well as his tenderness.

        David Pitman-Jennings captured Golaud's torment admirably. He grew old noticeably over time, evolving from somewhat distant to agitated, suspicious and finally, violent.

        As Arkel, Malcolm Smith was authoritative and convincingly aged. Elizabeth Skillings was a light-voiced Yniold, and Luretta Bybee was an effective Genevieve.

        Less convincing was the set, a murky, Dismal Swamp that screamed abstract-expressionism in shades of gray, while the music painted a Monet canvas. Costumes were a sometimes confusing mixture of Japanese, Chinese and Indian. The doctor (Wayne Tigges) wore a business suit.

        In an atmosphere dependent upon shades of light and dark, the lighting (Thomas C. Hase) was beautifully executed. An enchanting moment came when Yniold darted behind the dark scrim with a Japanese-like fish lantern.

        The production did not cast a spell on everyone in the audience of 2,789, who applauded but did not stand.

       



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