By Daniel Hathaway
CLEVELAND — Since Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst reintroduced annual opera performances at Severance Hall, the space has undergone a variety of clever temporary transformations to accommodate singers, orchestra, and stage settings.
For the Zürich Opera production of Così fan tutte, a great white box created a stage within a stage, with the orchestra deployed in traditional pit formation in front. For Salome, singers held forth from an upstage patio high above the orchestra. And for Cunning Little Vixen, a multimedia production involving computer graphics, the orchestra occupied the stage while singers poked their animal-masked heads out of a cartoonish cyclorama, whack-a-mole style.
Yuval Sharon, who staged Vixen, returned to mount a new production of Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which opened May 2 for three performances. His concept for Debussy’s only completed opera returned to the idea of a box, but in this case, it was a glass construction fitted with sophisticated lighting and special effects. Raised high on a platform at the back of the stage, the structure served the vision Sharon related in his director’s notes: “Mist as an atmosphere and a metaphor became the central element for this Cleveland Orchestra production — not a fog loosely distributed over the stage, but mysteriously contained in a hermetic glass box.”
Fog and mystery pervade both Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande and the opera Debussy based on it, choosing passages from the drama rather than creating a new libretto. There’s a synopsis, of course, but it’s not particularly helpful in understanding the personalities and motivation of Arkel, Golaud, Pelléas, and Mélisande.
Although the play and the opera are set in the mythical Kingdom of Allemonde in a legendary time, we have no idea from the libretto where each of those characters came from, what they’re thinking, or where they’re likely to end up. There is a love triangle involving Golaud, Mélisande, and Pelléas, the murder of Pelléas by Golaud, the birth of a child, and the death of Mélisande, but everything else vanishes into an mysterious miasma — just the kind of atmosphere Debussy liked to achieve in his music.
Underlining the ambiguities that suffuse the plot, Sharon sometimes caused the characters of the opera to appear in two different places at once. Singers were distributed on widely separated platforms throughout the orchestra, while actors and dancers inside the glass box pantomimed the characters’ thoughts. Sharon described them as “mythological doppelgängers” — the separation between voices and actors representing the conflict between the material and the spiritual.
The singers were well cast and uniformly superb. Bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann was a commanding presence as Golaud. No less captivating was baritone Elliot Madore, who brought passionate singing and an expressive countenance to the role of Pelléas. Soprano Martina Janková, who has appeared in all three of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas with the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as in The Cunning Little Vixen, played Mélisande with a mystical sense of innocence.
Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby was noble as Geneviève, the mother of Pelléas and Golaud. Peter Rose, a resounding bass, played King Arkel from a throne on stage right. Balancing herself adroitly on the ledge in front of the glass box, soprano Julie Mathevet made charming moments out of her trouser role as Yniold, the young son of Golaud. Baritone David Castillo efficiently dispatched his dual roles of the Doctor and the Shepherd.
Considering their location in the midst of the orchestra, the leads managed to project into the house with almost consistent success. Mathevet was at a disadvantage, but so was the small off-stage chorus which sang briefly early in the opera. Welser-Möst, who is in his natural element conducting opera, led a fluid, nuanced performance of Debussy’s colorful, soft-edged score. There are only a few dramatic climaxes in the third and fourth acts, but those were hair-raising by contrast. Debussy wrote long, gorgeous interludes between scenes, giving the Cleveland Orchestra a special place in the drama. Blend and balance were faultless.
Most of the action in Pelléas et Mélisande took place in the glass box, whose six frames alternated between transparency and translucence, and could be covered with panels, either blacked out or lit separately. Sharon created some dramatic effects with his seven ensemble members and two actors by flashing back and forth between mini-scenes. Graphics supporting the storyline were projected from the glass box as well, some of them quite striking. When the story focuses on Mélisande’s hair — a Rapunzel-like tilt to the plot — a huge, fiery mane trailed from an actor’s head. Things got quite busy in the glass box late in the opera when dancers took over and, mysteriously, were joined by a procession of men in homburgs and raincoats.
Whether all those visual additions supported and enhanced the story or merely represented a chain of distractions depends on how much individual audience members can take in at once. Those whose attention is drawn to shiny objects at the expense of listening to the music will likely find all the upstage business superfluous, while others will enjoy Sharon’s inventive painting of the lily.
In the end, Pelléas et Mélisande is a strange and wonderful show whose magical qualities resist over-analysis. Mélisande herself is a creature of essential ambivalence. At one point, she says she’s happy, at another, unhappy. Or she’s not unhappy. Late in the opera, she admits, “I don’t understand everything I say either.” Best to let the music in these brilliantly sung and played performances wash over you — and not to ask too many questions.
Daniel Hathaway is founder and editor of ClevelandClassical.com.