MUSIC REVIEW: ‘Pelleas and Melisande’ @ Cleveland Orchestra by Laura Kennelly

Tue 5/2, Thu 5/4, Sat 5/6

Claude Debussy’s only full-scale opera, Pelléas and Mélisande (1902), sketches out a dreamscape, a fantasy and, perhaps, a warning about romantic love. On opening night, Franz Welser-Möst, conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, introduced the Severance Hall audience to this highly abstract opera.

The orchestra treated the audience to a lush, string-filled meditation accompanied by a series of 15 vocal tableaus and incorporating lyric additions by harps, woodwinds and brass. Although Welser-Möst took care to allow individual voices — human and instrumental — to emerge from the sonic mists, it was not always easy to hear the French dialogue, but English supertitles helped.

Debussy’s opera was last performed (in concert) at Severance in 2000, conducted by Pierre Boulez. (Note for the curious: His version is on YouTube.) This Cleveland production, featuring vocal soloists clad in beautiful gauzy gowns and velvety costumes designed by Ann Closs-Farley, seems very much a period piece, one redolent of pre-Raphaelite sensibilities.

To add to the near-museum quality of the opera, the singers — who shifted positions on the main stage  between the instrumentalists — shared the stage with figures in balletic pantomime in a lighted, lifted box at the rear of the stage behind them. This set design, by Tony-nominated Mimi Lien (for Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, allowed the main characters’ doppelgängers (acted by a nine-person ensemble) to move beyond the poses the singers assumed. It was an interesting choice, but I felt distracted since there were then at least four different places to focus on: the orchestra and its conductor, the vocal soloists, the mime show going on above them and the supertitles. Yuval Sharon, who directed The Cunning Little Vixen previously at Severance, also directed this production.

The story is a simple courtly love tale, a fable of doomed lovers — in this case, the title characters. She’s the wife; he’s her husband’s brother. Things do not go well. If you’ve seen Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, you know the story already.

As Mélisande Martina Janková’s agile soprano voice conveyed the mystery inherent in the enigmatic creature loved by Pelléas (baritone Elliot Madore). As Golaud, Pelléas’s brother and her husband,  bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann showed passion for (and a remarkable lack of trust in) his pregnant bride.

As the King of Allemonde and father to the feuding brothers, bass Peter Rose, effectively conveys the old man’s grief. The king’s wife Geneviève (mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby) shared a similar distress at the bad behavior of her sons. Soprano Julie Mathevet as Yniold, Golaud’s young son, created a delightly spritely persona for the lad. Baritone David Castillo  took the roles of a doctor and a shepherd. The Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus also sang from behind screens.

BOTTOM LINE: Lovers of Debussy owe it to themselves to hear this carefully-crafted production told in silent movie tradition — voices one place, action another. In today’s age of overt passionate sexual expression on stage, this interpretation, while authentic to the time and place of its creation, seemed quaintly distant.

For tickets to the final performance Sat 5/6, call the Severance Hall box office at 216-231-1111 or go to clevelandorchestra.com.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

[Photo by Roger Mastroianni]

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