Last night Opera by Request presented Pelléas et Mélisande in concert. When an opera is given with singers in formal attire accompanied by a pianist, we usually understand that as a compromise. We lose the sounds of the orchestra, the illusion of sets & costumes, and the complete theatrical experience.
The one opera where you might be able to make a case for the value of a concert version is Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. I know: purists would be aghast. Passing up the brilliance of Debussy’s orchestrations? Losing the benefit of an atmospheric set & lighting?
But sometimes staging is a mixed blessing. There are operas that contain action that’s impossible to stage. Richard Wagner comes to mind, for his Ride of the Valkyries, the entry of the Gods into Valhalla on a rainbow bridge (from another opera that Opera by Request will be undertaking soon by the way). But the actions in Pelléas et Mélisande are especially difficult. When Golaud goes into a jealous rage at his wife Mélisande, he begins dragging her around the stage by the hair. Earlier Golaud had come upon Mélisande and his half-brother Pelléas together in a compromising position; Pelléas had been luxuriating in her massive length of hair, which was hanging down from her window, and had become entangled in a tree. Golaud later eaves-drops on his wife and his half brother with the assistance of his little son perched on his shoulders. And when the two lovers finally surrender to their passion, Golaud is there in the dark to slay his half brother and wound his wife. So no, I don’t mind if i can’t see any of that even if i do want to hear it.
Maurice Maeterlinck (who wrote the opera upon which Debussy based his opera) said that something of Hamlet dies when we see him on the stage, and he didn’t mean death by poisoned sword or drink. Maeterlinck found the live actor distracting from his poetic reverie. How odd, you might think, that a playwright hated live theatre; for him drama was a species of literature, and the version we read is better than the one onstage.
This is all meant as a defense of the concert version, however much we have become accustomed to the fully orchestrated/staged versions. Forgive me for such a huge preamble for a review, but it needed to be said that this version was no compromise.
I would not be undertaking such a discussion if it weren’t for the extraordinary playing of Brahm Goldhamer, the pianist & Music Director. On the piano, Debussy’s score is transparent, with nowhere to hide from its complexities. But if one can play properly, you hear the work more clearly than ever before. And so, for example, when Golaud & Pelléas emerged into sunlight after having been underground, the steady stream of sixteenth notes created a visceral sense of sunshine: especially because the notes were played perfectly. As the drama built up in Act IV –thinking especially of the violent moments, when the orchestra would unleash primal forces—Goldhamer tossed off lightning fast passages, hammered octaves, always pressing the tempi in perfect synch with the singers, literally hours of precise playing without a wrong note. Even without voices Goldhamer’s playing would have been a virtuoso performance. Best of all was the elegant last page that Goldhamer articulated with the eloquence of an Olivier.
In a tight ensemble work –particularly in the intimacy of a concert performance—one hopes for casting that creates the right chemistry. Artistic Director Bill Shookoff understands Opera by Request as a labour of love, programming operas out of genuine interest, and by implication, employing singers who get to test themselves in repertoire choices that might represent their first brave step in that direction.
Andrew Tees brought his friendly face and warm baritone to Golaud, taking the character in a wonderfully daring direction. I find Tees demeanour very likeable, with a winning smile. Golaud tends to be misunderstood as a villain, when in fact he’s much more of an everyman, always trying to make sense of the world. I don’t think I have ever seen a Golaud who appeared so likeable in the early acts of the work. This makes his gradual transformation all the more upsetting, and entirely believable. Mélisande calls him a giant, and for once Tees gives us the necessary aura of physical power to look like someone who can accidentally hurt people with his strength. The entire work turns magically on the phrase where Golaud notices that the wedding ring is missing from Mélisande’s finger; in that instant Tees & Goldhamer light an instantaneous fire of pain that swells explosively over the next acts. I hope Tees gets to explore the depths of the role in a full staging. I’m certain he has a great deal to offer, and is at the right age for such an undertaking.
As Mélisande Kyra Folk-Farber was the mystery at the heart of the opera, the girl from nowhere with a past she refuses to divulge. We met the other-worldly Pelléas, played by Michael Robert-Broder, as he was about to go to a dying friend. Folk-Farber’s Mélisande was a bit of a musical chameleon in this production. When singing with Tees she sounded almost Wagnerian, while in her scenes with Robert-Broder we encountered the gentler dynamics of chamber music, although their love-duet did build with a volcanic intensity to its violent conclusion.
There were no weak spots in the cast. Joel Katz brought a lovely sense of gravitas to the role of Arkel, the blind old man whose pronouncements are among the most quoted from the opera. Erika Warder’s Yniold was especially well-sung, her expressions reflecting the growing fear of a child with an insensitive parent. Jayne Smiley left us wanting to hear more in the role of Geneviève, but unfortunately the character only appears in the first act. Marc McNamara’s Doctor presided gently over the final scene with Katz’s Arkel.
Opera by Request will be back soon:
- Susannah Saturday February 19th @ 7:30 pm
- Norma Saturday March 19th @ 7:30 pm
- La Traviata Friday April 8th @ 7:30 pm
…and L’Elisir d’Amore & Das Rheingold still to come sometime later this spring.
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