Plumbing depths of Debussy operaStaging a scaled-down Debussy

Music: Truth takes a few hits in the little-heard `Pelleas et Melisande' being staged in scaled-down fashion by Opera Vivente.

Performing Arts

May 01, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Exactly 99 years ago yesterday, one of the most intriguing, perplexing and intoxicating operas was first heard in Paris. The audience, unprepared for the symbolist story or the subtle musical language, hissed the performance, but that boorish behavior could not keep Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" from being ultimately recognized as a masterpiece.

The challenges of the work, musical and theatrical, have kept it from being in the forefront of the repertoire. Baltimore Opera has never presented it; the last production in this region was apparently in Washington, 40 years ago. That neglect is about to be set right this week, though with a decided twist.

Opera Vivente, the plucky, tiny-budgeted company dedicated to intimate and inventive stagings, will be the unlikely vehicle for bringing "Pelleas et Melisande" to a Baltimore stage. Artistic director John Bowen and music director Aaron Sherber have pared Debussy's lush orchestration down to 16 instruments. And a young cast will move through the heady, five-act drama of doomed love on a small church-hall stage.

It's a far cry from the usual trappings of a "Pelleas" production, but, judging by past Opera Vivente efforts, this should be an eye- and ear-opener.

"It has been a fascinating, ever-deepening process working on this opera," Bowen says. "Does anyone ever really get to the bottom of it? There is an endless telescoping back and forth of meaning."

A sort of impressionistic variation on Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," Debussy's opera, drawn from a Maurice Matterlinck play, involves an unplanned passion in a mythical, autumnal kingdom ruled by King Arkel. Melisande is found lost in the woods by Golaud, a prince; the two are married.

Golaud's half-brother, Pelleas, slowly falls in love with Melisande, and she with him. Golaud discovers them in their one and only kiss, and kills Pelleas. Later, Melisande dies, never answering her husband's question about the nature of her love for Pelleas.

The nature of the plot, which unfolds at a leisurely pace and in a kind of aural mist, without any clear resolution, has left some people cold. Bowen finds it inspiring. He came across a letter Debussy wrote in response to a criticism that the characters in the opera were strange, ambiguous, unrealistic.

"Debussy said he felt they were more real precisely because they were complicated and self-contradictory," Bowen says. "Real people aren't just real bad or real good, faithful or not faithful. That colored my approach to the staging.

"Rather than playing up the strangeness, I'm trying to help the singers find the subtext, the history behind the part of the lives we see onstage."

For Bowen, the opera boils down to an issue of truth.

"No one faces up to the truth in themselves," he says. "Arkel is not a good king; he hides behind destiny and fate as an elaborate rationalization for not being an effective king. Melisande doesn't tell the truth, either. She thinks she can be faithful to her husband and fall in love with Pelleas. She doesn't understand why she can't have everything she wants."

Bowen, whose past Opera Vivente efforts include a provocative "Dido and Aeneas" set in a high school and a "Cosi fan tutte" set in 1950s Havana, is giving "Pelleas" a somewhat vague look, in keeping with the rather amorphous quality of the opera.

"Our set [designed by Anthea Smith] is almost entirely made out of fabric," Bowen says. "Eight different locales are called for in the opera, which would be impossible on our little stage. But the fabric will get moved into various configurations to suggest the scenes."

Tackling a large-scale challenge with small-scale means is just the sort of risk Opera Vivente savors.

"I'm sure there are purists who will crucify me," Bowen says. "But hopefully the basic spirit of the piece will come through even with the reduced forces. It might even have greater impact from a dramatic standpoint because of being done this way."

Music director Sherber agrees.

"Basically, I think that `Pelleas' is a chamber opera," he says, "except that it happens to have a large orchestra. The cast is small and the action is intimate. The style of the text and the story generally lend themselves well to a small house like ours and can actually seem more out of place in a cavernous house like the Metropolitan Opera."

The cast includes Laura Antonina Vicari as Melisande, Daniel Holmes as Pelleas, Joshua Saxon as Golaud. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. Tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors. Call 410-547- 7997.

Calling choral music fans

It looks like a great weekend for fans of choral music.

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