Sunday, May 18, 2003

CCM's 'Pelleas' lusty and stunning

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A century after its premiere in Paris, Debussy's only opera, Pelleas et Melisande, is still difficult for audiences to fathom. Its dreamlike story, after a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, takes place in a mythical medieval kingdom, and stretches interminably through five acts. There are no arias; the singers occasionally soar into quasi-melody.

So when forces at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music rose to its challenges with a provocative, beautifully performed production on Thursday in Corbett Auditorium, it was an impressive feat. Although momentum sagged at times - much of the audience bailed out before the 11:20 p.m. finish - its visual and aural beauty lingered long after it ended.

Such a project, intelligently staged by Thomas de Mallet Burgess and conducted with nuance and sensitivity by Mark Gibson, could not have been undertaken without the depth of student talent in both the cast and the orchestra.

The production echoed the pervading sadness of the tale, one of love and longing, suspicion and death. Lost in the forest, Golaud stumbles upon the mysterious Melisande, takes her for his wife, and brings her to the castle. There she falls in love with Golaud's younger brother, Pelleas. The suspicious Golaud kills his brother and Melisande dies after giving birth.

Symbolism pervades the opera: Yniold's trapped golden ball, a flock of sheep and Melisande's hair cascading erotically from the tower. The director has augmented them: a camera on a tripod, two doves in a cage, a sword plunged into the stone floor, white roses strewn about and falling water - a recurring motif that seems to evoke weeping. Melisande's hair - black instead of golden - is blood red as it falls down and entangles Pelleas.

The opera opens with rain falling on a steeply raked stage; Melisande is sprawled on a rock in a cave. The gloomy set, by Thomas C. Umfrid, featured heavy stone walls in shades of gray. Light (Steven Mack) was dramatically used in light shafts, backlighting and startling blue sky panoramas through open doors and windows. Period costumes by Dean Mogle suggested the late 19th century.

Burgess' cast moved as if in a fog - or perhaps it was the stage's steep pitch that caused them to appear tentative at times. Yet, despite a few stilted moments, they inhabited their roles wonderfully.

Audrey Luna's Melisande grew from a frightened, soaking wet creature to an anguished and, finally, detached young woman. Luna's scene as she tossed her ring into the well was one of great charm and beauty, and she sang with purity and youthful expression.

As Pelleas, Daniel Paget was an appealing lover, with a firm, virile voice. Though his direction was often static, his love scene with Melisande was irresistible.

Sean Anderson turned in a powerful, emotional performance of Golaud, as he progressed from suspicious husband - once watching the lovers with bird-watching binoculars - to abusive accuser. He manhandled Melisande rather more violently than necessary - slapping her, knocking her about and dragging her by the hair.

Randall Levin was a superb King Arkel, who sang eloquently and carried his role with a noble air. A bright light was Seung-Hyun Lee as Yniold, who sang about lost sheep with winsome charm. In smaller roles, Shannon Melody Unger (Genevieve) and Mischa Bouvier (Physician) were equally convincing.

Gibson's orchestra was a detailed, evocative canvas that infused the action with color.


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