And, brother, did he ever deserve it. Stage Director David Alden (making his first and hopefully last appearance with the company) has taken a subtle work in which nearly everything of importance is implied rather than stated outright and turned it into a heavy-handed catalog of psychosexual dysfunction that would not be out of place in a cable movie of the week. Imagine a play by Harold Pinter done in the style of (say) Charles Busch’s Die Mommie Die! and you’ll have some idea of the crashing dissonance involved.
The story of the opera is a classic romantic triangle. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version, adapted from Wikipedia. Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her back to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. There, Mélisande becomes attracted to Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas, arousing Golaud’s jealousy and driving him to bizarre lengths to learn “the truth”. At one point Golaud forces his own child, Yniold, to spy on the couple. Pelléas prepares leave forever but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time. As the two finally confess their love, Golaud rushes out and kills Pelléas. Mélisande dies shortly after, having given birth to a daughter, with Golaud still begging her to tell him “the truth”.
Pelléas was Debussy’s only opera, and he seems to have poured his heart into it. Seeking a refuge from the long and ponderous shadow of Wagner, he was drawn to the consciously anti-naturalistic work of the poet and dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck who, like other artists in the early 20th century Symbolist movement, believed that dramatic truth should be suggested rather than shown. His setting follows the original play closely, mirroring the playwright’s subtlety with an evocative score that unfolds in a series of tableaux rather than in conventional solos and choruses. It is, in short, a nearly perfect match of music and text.
Or it was before Mr. Alden got his hands on it. Again and again throughout the production, he imposes interpretations on scenes that are entirely unjustified by any plausible reading of the text or music and often actively contradict both. This nonsense reaches its peak (or its nadir) in Maeterlinck’s Act IV Scene 3, in which an elliptical little scene involving Yniold and a shepherd is played out as a hallucination that ends with the shepherd (who is actually a sinister doctor in this version) injecting Yniold with a sedative. I would have laughed had I not already been so annoyed by the incredible arrogance all of this implied. Does Mr. Alden really think his neo-Freudian clichés are more interesting than the repressed sexual tension implied by but never stated in the music and libretto? It would seem so.
But enough of this. Let us consign the director’s concept to the ash-heap of history and concentrate on the musical performances, which are as consistently right as the stage direction is wrong.
And let us begin with the orchestra. Led by OTSL Music Director Stephen Lord, they deliver a luminous and compelling reading of Debussy’s hypnotic and consistently fascinating score. This is a work in which the orchestra is as essential to the drama as the characters, and Mr. Lord integrates everything seamlessly.
The singers, despite being saddled with absurd and demeaning blocking, all deliver performances that are beautifully sung and acted. Yes, their characters largely contradict the libretto, but that’s hardly their fault. The important thing is that they all sound terrific.
Baritone Gregory Dahl, who was such a commanding presence in OTSL's Salome, proves to be equally impressive as the conflicted Golaud. He has a dark, powerful voice – almost more of a bass-baritone – that contrasts nicely with the clear and ringing tones of his fellow baritone Liam Bonner, who makes a striking OTSL debut as Pelléas.
Former Gerdine Young Artist Corinne Winters has a radiant soprano that’s ideally suited to the role of the inexplicably troubled Mélisande. She also seems to understand the repressed sensuality that is part of the core of this character.
A familiar figure in many of the world’s most celebrated opera houses, bass John Cheek, brings authority and yet another great voice to the role of King Arkel. It is, happily, an understated performance in an evening otherwise given over to heaving bosoms and rolling about on the floor. As Yniold, boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo (who made such a strong impression as Charlie in The Golden Ticket last season) once again displays a remarkably clear and well-developed voice along with acting skills well beyond his years.
Adam Silverman’s lighting and Paul Steinberg’s set are so strikingly ugly that I’m forced to conclude that they are exactly what the director wants. The former is all harsh glare and deep shadows, while the latter looks like an art deco living room complete with chandelier. For outdoor scenes, a stiff curtain covered in what looks like cheap wood grain contact paper is lowered to suggest the forest. To me, it mostly suggested a 1950s suburban rec room.
As you have no doubt gathered by now, my bottom line is that (to paraphrase an old Monty Python sketch) this is not a production for seeing; this is an production for running away from and avoiding. If you’ve never seen Pelléas and Mélisande, this is not the way to make its acquaintance. You’d be better off with one of the many audio recordings, especially those by some of the opera’s champions such as Ansermet, Boulez, or von Karajan. I’d suggest one of the video versions available on Netflix, but it seems that taking this lovely work rife with musical and verbal depictions of nature (Debussy’s love of the sea is especially apparent here) and stuffing it into claustrophobic interiors has become in vogue recently.
Performances of Pelléas and Mélisande continue at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus through June 24th. For more information, visit experienceopera.org or the company’s Facebook page, call 314-961-0644 or follow them on Twitter @OTSL.