Preview: Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” with The Cleveland Orchestra

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click to enlarge Preview: Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” with The Cleveland Orchestra
Cleveland Orchestra
Cleveland is the only major city in Ohio without a flagship opera company. That is, unless you count the revolving door of fledgling groups that have struggled to carry the operatic mantle since Opera Cleveland folded in 2010.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s yearly opera productions have done much of the heavy lifting in terms of drawing crowds and bringing star voices to Cleveland for nearly a decade.

This year, the Cleveland Orchestra will present “Pelléas et Mélisande,” by French composer Claude Debussy.

Debussy always get marketed as an “Impressionist,” even though his music has nothing to do with painting, much less blurry water lilies. But we’ve all seen gaudy Monet prints hanging in our imitation French cafés. Far fewer of the Symbolists’ coy pictures, which are spiritually if not philosophically closer to Debussy, ever get to watch us eat stale croissants. So the label sticks.

For all the music’s reputed lightness, “Pelléas” arrives at heavy, disturbing conclusions about life and fate. The simmering romance between Pelléas and Mélisande, who is married to the former’s half-brother Golaud, ends with the titular characters’ death. Mélisande dies in childbirth, prompting her father-in-law to remark, "Il faut que [l’enfant] vive, maintenant, à sa place. C’est au tour de la pauvre petite." It’s the poor little child’s turn to take her mother’s place.

Geneviève, the mother of Pelléas and Golaud, probably foresees impending tragedy at the beginning of the story. Geneviève’s role will be sung by Cleveland’s own mezzo soprano Nancy Maultsby.

“I mean, she’s a mother, and she loves both of her sons,” Maultsby said over the phone. “She has that maternal radar.”

The opera takes place in a fairytale land called Allemonde, an English and French portmanteau meaning “all of the world.” (Not a misspelling of Allemande.) During a furtive promenade with Pelléas, Mélisande accidentally drops her wedding ring into a well. It’s a critical point in the story, foreshadowing the romance’s tragic end. Set designer Mimi Lien will transport the audience to the bottom of the well using silhouettes and fog swirling inside a glass enclosure suspended nine feet above the stage.

“The image that’s represented in the box is sort of like as if we’re in the bottom of the well looking up at this tiny circle of sky,” Lien said. “One of the great things about working within this glass box is that it kind of gives us permission to interpret some of the narrative elements of the story in a more poetic way.”

Earlier in the opera, Geneviève shows her daughter-in-law around the lush grounds of the shadowy château where the main action takes place. They see a ship in the distance. Mélisande identifies it as the ship which brought her and Golaud together. Instead of rolling a clumsy ship-shaped prop onto the stage, Lien will transform the glass box into the lantern room of a lighthouse, whose bright beams cut through the fog.

This subtle, symbolic staging harmonizes with Debussy’s feelings about opera in general. Musicologists, who are sometimes prone to believe their eyes more than their ears, have drawn overstated parallels between Debussy’s opera and Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” But it’s ultimately a comparison between a hulking German Romantic and a Frenchman who once said, “Music in opera is far too predominant.”

Throughout this production, projections, scenery, and silhouetted actors in the glass box will convey the dreamlike universe where the story takes place. The singers will be placed closer to the audience and the orchestra, which will also be on stage.

In a press release, director Yuval Sharon said he shares music director Franz Welser-Möst’s desire “to take an opera, no matter when it was written, and make it feel alive today and foresee how relevant and vital it can be for centuries to come.” If it doesn’t matter when an opera was written, why are they all assumed dead or in need of resuscitation? It seems “Pelléas,” which turns 115 years old next week, is among the newest operas Clevelanders will get to see at Severance Hall.

Canadian baritone Elliot Madore will make his Cleveland debut in the title role of Pelléas. Soprano Martina Janková will sing the role of Mélisande. Janková previously collaborated with Welser-Möst in Zürich and Salzburg, and in the Cleveland Orchestra’s widely-acclaimed high-tech production of Janáček’s “Cunning Little Vixen” two seasons ago.

Performances are May 2, 4, and 6 at Severance Hall.
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