Opera takes vague course of action

May 05, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

"Where are you going," Melisande asks of the older man who has found her lost, alone and frightened in a dark wood and asks her to come with him.

"I don't know," the man says. "I'm lost, too."

In a way, these lines from Claude Debussy's only completed opera, "Pelleas et Melisande," define the mysterious drama that follows. Everyone in this haunting work is lost; some know it, some don't. By the end, Melisande, on her death bed, says, "I don't know what I know." She's not alone.

Some audiences are frustrated by the vagueness of "Pelleas et Melisande"; they crave clear-cut characters, motivations, denouements -- and more direct music to delineate those elements. For others, that obscurity serves as a subtle intoxicant, drawing them into the heady symbols and ravishing, sometimes wonderfully amorphous sounds.

Opera Vivente's daring attempt to stage this piece may not make believers out of doubters, nor thoroughly satisfy those already open to its spell. But if you can get past certain weaknesses (some severe), the production releases a sense of the opera's allure.

Artistic director John Bowen and music director Aaron Sherber argue that "Pelleas" is so intimate in nature that it really is a chamber piece, its lush, full orchestration notwithstanding. They reduced the score to 16 instruments, and no doubt did so with great care, but it would take a virtuoso ensemble to demonstrate its effectiveness.

A group of mostly Peabody students who played it Thursday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church encountered intonation and articulation trouble. As a result, Debussy suffered in the paring-down process; his incomparable music was rarely able to float or pulsate with its unique nuances.

Sherber certainly has a sense of how the score should be played; his tempos balanced momentum with the time-suspension that helps make "Pelleas" distinctive.

Uneven casting took a toll.

Melisande enters wrapped in a mystery, and leaves wrapped in an enigma. Although we never understand her fully, we must sense the magnetism that makes two step-brothers, Golaud and Pelleas, fall for her and awaken intense fatherly affection from King Arkel. Laura Antonina Vicari moved through Thursday's performance as if in a trance, her face and voice largely devoid of expression. This blank performance left the heart of the opera unopened.

Daniel Holmes caught the mix of moodiness and youthfulness of Pelleas tellingly and phrased his music with considerable sensitivity, but his voice lacked weight and tonal evenness. However, Joshua Saxon offered considerable vocal and interpretive richness as Golaud; a fully realized, telling characterization complemented his stylish musical performance.

Moving slowly in a Victorian suit covered by a tattered royal robe (one of costume designer Norah Shaw's clever touches), David Neal conveyed the psychological weakness of Arkel, and also the compassion behind his sagging authority. If the high end of the voice lacked support, the rest was firm and strongly communicative.

Madeleine Gray (Genevieve) and Steven Goodman (Physician) were eloquent assets. Soo Young Kim Chrisfield (Yniold) acted convincingly, but her singing was usually inaudible or indecipherable.

Bowen's direction moving smoothly through Anthea Smith's simple scenic design -- long curtains of muted colors and a few props. Paul Christensen's lighting was mostly evocative, though the start of the exquisite final scene could use more atmosphere.

The opera repeats at 2:30 p.m. tomorrow at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. Tickets cost $15-20 and can be bought by calling 410-547-7997.

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