In an Ingenious Evening, Debussy Triumphs Over Maeterlinck

United StatesUnited States Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande: Soloists, Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus (Robert Porco [director]), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, 4.5.2017. (MSJ)

Pelléas and Mélisande The Cleveland Orchestra Franz Welser-Möst, conductor production directed by Yuval Sharon set design by Mimi Lien lighting and projection design by Jason H. Thompson costume design by Ann Closs-Farley choreography by Danielle Agami Elliot Madore, baritone (Pelléas) Martina Janková, soprano (Mélisande) Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano (Genevieve) Hanno Müller-Brachmann, bass-baritone (Golaud) Peter Rose, bass (Arkel) Julie Mathevet, soprano (Yniold) David Castillo, baritone (Doctor/Shepherd) Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus PROGRAM DEBUSSY - Pelléas and Mélisande Photo by Roger Mastroianni
Cleveland Orchestra’s Pelléas and Mélisande (c) Roger Mastroianni

Pelléas – Elliot Madore,
Mélisande – Martina Janková,
Genevieve – Nancy Maultsby
Golaud – Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Arkel – Peter Rose
Yniold – Julie Mathevet
Doctor/Shepherd – David Castillo

Yuval Sharon – director
Mimi Lien – set design
Jason H. Thompson – lighting and projection design
Ann Closs-Farley – costume design
Danielle Agami – choreography

After the artistic explorations of the last century or so, how valid is fin de siècle symbolism? It’s the nagging question that lurks beneath Debussy’s mesmerizing Pelléas et Mélisande, originally a portentous and elusive stage drama by Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck. Can an ingenious modern production shed new light and bring new life to the piece? Yes. Can it sell Maeterlinck? Not to this listener.

Full disclosure: I acted a role in a college production of a short Maeterlinck play, and loathed it. I recognized that perhaps its symbolism was revelatory back in the day, but to my callowly youthful, late twentieth century eyes, it appeared heavy-handed and tedious. Never having heard Debussy’s operatic version until twenty-odd years later, I was prepared to meet Maeterlinck again, find new insights, and finally embrace his work.

That didn’t happen. Maeterlinck’s script (as abridged by Debussy) comes from the same dank morass as the work I performed in college, only here it’s six times longer. Debussy’s genius does a lot to make it more palatable, but at the end of the night, it’s still oppressive. That was Maeterlinck’s point, you say? Fine, make your point and move on. Instead, the work’s symbolic indictment of a sick society is painfully obvious, and gets nowhere that I can discern. Even Debussy’s version has been infamously derided as the three-hour opera where nothing happens. That’s unfair, because something does happen at the end of Act IV, apparently, but the truth is that the real action is in the music, which makes a running psychological commentary on the minimal stage activity.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s production of Pelléas et Mélisande is a noble and often ingenious attempt at realizing this psychodrama as a stage work. It intersperses singers, dancers, and modern stagecraft around, within, and over the orchestra, which performs with the front of the Severance Hall stage dropped to a lower level than usual. Above and behind the orchestra is a glass box, part of the ingenious set design by Mimi Lien, who was just nominated for a Tony Award for her scenic design for the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. At the flick of a switch, the clear glass box could be turned opaque and projected upon—or filled frequently with fog, the perfect visualization of the story.

As symbolism has often been described as being “half-said,” its abstract nature is ripe for creative interpretation. Director Yuval Sharon established two areas: one for the singers, entering slowly onto platforms within or around the orchestra, cut off and disconnected from each other; and the second, actors and dancers showing the characters’ interactions, but hermetically sealed within their misty and mystifying box. The abstraction of the concept was intensified at times by having the mimed Pelléas and Mélisande duplicated by the dancers in costumes identical to those of the main characters.

The most haunting use of the box came in the scene where Pelléas and Mélisande were panicking at being seen while their illicit love drew them together. Sharon dressed the dancers in fedoras and raincoats, like figures from a René Magritte painting—voyeuristic lurking perverts. One by one they entered the box from an unseen trap door in the floor. And then they kept coming. And coming. While the number of people was never that many, through a deft bit of stage trickery, a constant stream of lurkers kept arriving and circling the unconsummated lovers, while the number of people in the box remained the same.

There were other ingenious uses of the box, including moving panels behind which dancers and actors could suddenly appear or disappear, yet the panels could also at times leave their tracks and suddenly move around the box. At one point, Jason H. Thompson’s surreal projections had the dancers walking through images of their doubles—who weren’t actually in the box—and out-of-sync dancers and their shadows created another jaw-dropping moment. The lights ebbed and flowed like water, the Freudian symbol that haunts the work.

All this magic helped clarify that Maeterlinck’s story of a sick and rotting kingdom is really an indictment of late 19th-century European society: The elite get wrapped up in their own indulgences while the peasants starve. In that sense, it could certainly still be relevant. Perhaps taking it out of its fairy-tale, legendary setting would have given it a sharper impact.

The performances were impressive. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was outstanding as Golaud, the jealous prince. He has a handsome bass-baritone voice, but Müller-Brachmann also realized how to press it into an imposing, ringing hollowness during Golaud’s moments of anger and obsession. As the younger prince and romantic lead, Elliot Madore brought contrasting warmth to Pelléas. Martina Janková sang Mélisande with wide-eyed sweetness, though she was at times vocally challenged by being placed upstage, behind the orchestra. Peter Rose and Nancy Maultsby searched their roles as King Arkel and Geneviève, respectively, for nuances of color and meaning. Though the staging, with singers separated on platforms spread about the orchestra, prevented any sense of connection between the vocalists, overemphasizing the work’s claustrophobic, Bell jar-ish feel.

The dance ensemble (choreographed by Danielle Agami) was fantastic, embodying elements only hinted at in the oblique libretto. In most places, the movements were riveting, though in a few spots, the choreography fell back on modern dance cliches. Overall, the use of dance to enhance the static stage action was a welcome relief.

Best of all were Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra. During his tenure, Welser-Möst has refined the sound of the orchestra, exploring terraced low dynamics, breathtaking pianissimos, and fragile delicacy. That approach worked particularly well here, where where the psychological action of the story is expressed through Debussy’s music. One couldn’t ask for a better reading of the score.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to experience a work that explores the edges of perception and understanding. The Cleveland Orchestra and Yuval Sharon’s creative team certainly provided much to think about, and showed the same brilliance they brought to Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen in 2014 (to be revived this fall). I remain convinced, however, that the source for Debussy’s opera—Maeterlinck’s drama—is a stilted and pretentious bit of indulgent hand-wringing that has not aged well at all.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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