Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) contains some of the most beautiful and important music of the 20th century. It can also be a chore to endure. Maurice Maeterlinck’s libretto, which he adapted from his own play of the same name, relies heavily on abstract Symbolist poetry, providing little drama. Uncut productions regularly clock in north of four hours, and even the most inventive directors struggle with the long, inert stretches that permeate the work.
The Pelléas problem
So how do you solve a problem like Pelléas? Legendary avant-garde theater director Peter Brook provides one solution. His Impressions of Pelléas (1992), conceived with late composer/conductor Maurice Constant, distills the opera down to a tight 100 minutes, performed in English. Constant’s paraphrase of the score reduces the ornately orchestrated work to a simple piano arrangement. The abbreviated length and musical requirements made Impressions an ideal season opener for Curtis Opera Theatre, which presented the work in an intimate and impeccably sung production by R.B. Schlather.
The opera depicts a love triangle between two royal brothers, Pelléas (baritone Patrick Wilhelm) and Golaud (baritone Dennis Chmelensky), and the mysterious Mélisande (mezzo-soprano Kendra Broom). Temperamental Golaud marries Mélisande by force after spotting her in a dark forest, but her true love lies with Pelléas, who shares her mournful, enigmatic constitution. The libretto never explains why any of these characters love one another so fiercely, but Debussy’s overwhelmingly romantic music offers clues. Because this is an opera, you know things won’t end well.
Pelléas et Mélisande requires its audience to give themselves over to the work’s elliptical nature. Impressions of Pelléas, by contrast, is far more plot-driven. It begins with Geneviève (strong-voiced mezzo Sophia Fiurza Hunt, deploying flawless English diction), Golaud and Pelléas’s mother, reading a letter to King Arkel (sonorous bass Kodi Meyer) announcing Golaud and Mélisande’s marriage. From there, we enter a fast-paced saga of love, death, and deception. Brook’s dramaturgical skill makes some of the opera’s more confounding elements seem sensible for the first time, as when Golaud enlists his young son, Yniold (here sung by ravishing soprano Emily Pogorelc), to spy on his uncle and stepmother’s trysts.
Gimmicks need not apply
The performances took place in Curtis’s Opera Studio, a black box that usually serves as a rehearsal room. In a director’s note, Schlather wrote he was “interested in what the experience of this piece could be in this room. It’s a small, dark room. . . There is no divide between character and audience.” As with his staging of David Hertzberg’s The Wake World for Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival, Schlather encouraged his audience to get up and engage with the production.
Mercifully, everyone remained seated on opening night; with a performance this captivating, gimmicks need not apply. Also credited as costume designer, Schlather dressed his cast in grungy normcore clothing: Champion shirts, socks with sandals, so many sweatpants. These offered freedom of movement, complementing the athletic staging. The principal trio balletically fused their bodies, creating an erotically charged environment that communicated their dangerous ménage á trois. They often melded with the audience, shoving into the seating area or singing mere feet from patrons’ faces. Pianist Lisa Keller’s wheeled Steinway careened throughout the makeshift playing area, guided by the performers.
Mastering a masterpiece
Keller deserves high praise for never allowing this peripatetic directorial whim to break her concentration. Her expression of Debussy’s complicated musical language proved even more impressive. Musicologists note that despite the original piece’s large orchestral requirements, Debussy’s writing emphasizes color over volume. This can be difficult to communicate solely through piano, but Keller skillfully highlighted the work’s chromatic, unified musical language. The leitmotif-laden score bloomed in her hands as she foregrounded each character’s distinct harmonic theme.
The three principals did similarly outstanding work. Wilhelm’s ardent, burnished baritone pulsed with desire for Mélisande; with Broom’s performance, it was clear why. She possesses a distinguished and memorable voice — technically secure throughout the range, with a free and easy top — and impresses even more as an actor. Given her sphinxlike impenetrability, Mélisande can be a tough assignment, and opera singers aren’t always renowned for their acting. But Broom uses the character’s enigmatic nature to her advantage, creating a character the audience wants to understand but can’t. Her almost spectral final exit will be etched in my memory.
But Chmelensky emerged as the evening’s unquestionable discovery. His superbly produced lyric baritone lifted the already stellar production to the musical stratosphere, while never sacrificing a connection to the text for mere tonal beauty. Though still an undergraduate, he gave the impression of a fully formed artist, ready to claim his place on the world stage.