Pelléas and Mélisande
Roger Mastroianni Photo Courtesy Cleveland Orchestra
is meant to be quiet and dark and otherworldly. And the most striking aspect of last night's Cleveland Orchestra's performance of Claude Debussy's only completed opera came in the quietness of its ending. Of course, like any other epic, concertgoers had to endure three hours of ups and downs to be worthy of its conclusion, to feel its power.
In this mesmerizing production, directed by Yuval Sharon and conducted by Franz Welser-Most, singers came and went, performing on platforms scattered throughout the orchestra members' seats on stage. Above the musicians, inside what looks like the skeleton of a shipping crate, dancers acted out the story with the magic of movement, lighting, smoke, gliding silkscreens and even puppetry.
Naturally, the orchestra was fantastic, especially when allowed to take off their mutes and rip into the sensational score. But for the most part, they offered ambiance and created a soft place for the singers' notes to fall. Martina Jankova's lyric turn as Melisande was heart wrenching and Hanno Muller-Brachmann's performance as her scorned husband Golaud was especially glorious. Peter Rose, as King Arkel, has a voice we could listen to for days.
Yet the plot of this opera is a lot to handle. Taken from the play of the same name, the opera tells the story of a mysterious woman named Melisande, whom after marrying a king's grandson Golaud, falls in love with his half-brother Pelleas instead. Naturally, when her husband finds out, he kills Pelleas. Later, our heroine dies after giving birth to a child.
Now it's important to understand that Melisande (no matter how beautiful her voice) is sad. She sings about being sad quite a bit, and also about dropping shiny objects in pools of water But don't worry, every man she meets seems to want a piece of her. Sometimes, like when Pelleas says he wants to tie her long, hair up in trees and make her his prisoner, that sentiment even gets creepy. But this is all meant as a dark think piece. As the production program explains, it's in the thing left unsaid that we're supposed to revel. And even with all the things going on onstage, your mind probably will wander. And it should.
Opera sometimes can be boring (just take a
look at the LakeView Cemetery's incredibly honest performance program ad at right). I don't think enough people who like opera and want it to succeed in the 21st Century are willing to admit that. There are times when you'll have no idea what's going on with the plot and singers continue to repeat the same nonsensical phrases over and over. You'll wish perhaps that you had access to your phone, to check sports scores, or ... anything. But boredom is all part of the performance. It allows you to feel the impact even more when the music draws you in again, like at the end of the third act when the lovers are spied upon.
Make no mistake, from conception to production, this performance was high quality. Its final notes moved people. One man in front of me took off his glasses to wipe tears from his face. Despite its legendary setting, the humanity shone through. When Melisande dies surprising softly in the end, she leaves her men, but also the audience, to pick up the pieces.
That it was raining as we all left Severance Hall last night was exactly right.
Catch the final performance of Pelleas and Melisande Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Severance Hall. Tickets are $49-$162. For more information head to clevelandorchestra.com.