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Imagine an opera without arias, duets or ensemble pieces! Such was the work released on the world of music in 1902 by the iconoclast French composer Claude Debussy and the Belgian mystic playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. Ever since I was introduced to Pelléas et Mélisande (as a conservatory student in Brussels), I have lusted after the opera, which is very low (74th) on the list of most popular opera productions in the world. Yet when it is performed, cognoscenti pack the theaters, often traveling long distances as when the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the North Carolina School of the Arts announced plans to produce a version of Debussy's masterpiece.
In 1992, theatre producer and director Peter Brook and French composer Marius Constant shortened the original five-act opera to 100 minutes with no intermissions, cut the full orchestra down to just two pianos, and retitled the work, Impressions de Pelléas. (Two years ago, the Fletcher Opera Institute staged an award-winning production of Brook's and Constant's version of La Tragédie de Carmen.) UNCSA's composition students (with permission from the publishers) further retouched Constant's reduction, adding a flute, a cello and percussion to the two pianos. The musicians and conductor all sit on stage, in view of the audience. While the dozen scenes are strung together by continuous music, as in the original opera, the director of the production, Nic Muni in his third year as artistic director of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute), uses lighting to effectively break up the stage of Agnes de Mille Theatre into the various locations indicated by the libretto.
The opera has three central characters: Prince Golaud, his half-brother Pelléas, and Mélisande, a mysterious wispy woman with a hidden past who attracts and eventually fatally separates the two brothers. Andrew René, baritone, was powerful as Golaud, the (eventual) husband of Mélisande. His rich nuanced voice and perfect French combined with aggressive attitude to make his jealousy palpable.
Soprano Eliza Mandzik made a stunning Mélisande, flitting from one subject to another, innocent yet seductive and mysterious about her past. Having encountered Golaud near a fountain in a distant forest where he was lost while hunting in the first scene, by the second scene she was already his wife, about to meet his family. Mandzik has a lovely pure warm soprano voice and an appearance which fits the role.
Jacob Wright was an endearing Pelléas, youthful, slender, a bit aimless, but thoroughly likeable. His French was excellent and matched his bright tenor voice perfectly. He lives "in the moment" in a kind of child-like innocence that makes him believable as Mélisande's suitor.
Kathleen Felty, mezzo-soprano with a rich smooth sound, sang the role of Genevieve, the mother of the half-brothers, and a stabilizing force in the family. She supervises them and intercedes between her sons and their aged grandfather, Arkel, ruler of Allemonde, sung in a deep and portentous manner by bass-baritone Karl Buttermann. Philosophical and judicious, King Arkel has some of the best lines of the opera, "Si j'étais dieu, j'aurais pitié sur le coeur de l'homme" ("If I were God, I would pity the heart of man.")
Logan Trotter sang the "pants role" of Yniold, Golaud's young son from his deceased first wife. Golaud tries to use Yniold to spy on his wife and brother, but Yniold sees nothing but innocence in their company, much to the dissatisfaction of his father.
Christopher Allen was the outstanding guest conductor directing with precision the small quintet with a very big sound, even occasionally so loud as to inhibit our understanding of the singers. (Thanks for the over-head projections of the English sub-titles!)
Special mention to the extraordinary use of lighting and shadows in particular to enact the tricky "hair scene" in which Mélisande mingles her dangling hair with the shadow of Pelléas' hand on the wall outside her window. Kudos to Dominic DeSalvio, lighting designer!
The design crew from the School of Design and Production also included Jacob Harbeck, scenic design, Eileen Chaffer, costumes, and Allyson Kochanek, wig and makeup. Jonathan Bach served as the production stage manager.
The finale performance of Impressions of Pelléas takes place on Sunday, April 22 at 2 pm. See sidebar for details.