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Impressions of Debussy

We thank guest contributor Richard Rice for this review from Baltimore.

(L to R) Dina Martire (Geneviève), Samuel Bishop (Yniold), David Morris (Arkel), Lisa Eden (Mélisande), and Nathan Wentworth (Golaud) in Impressions of Pelléas, Opera Vivente (photo by Cory Weaver)
On Saturday, Opera Vivente gave its fourth and final performance of Impressions of Pelléas, Marius Constant’s adaptation of Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Constant’s distillation removes an hour’s worth of music and convolutes the opening two scenes into a single flashback. He reduces Debussy’s lush orchestration to its “original” piano score, arranged for two pianos. It’s hard to tell how much actual arranging this entailed, but surely not enough to warrant composer credit. Curiously, the interludes that Debussy added to cover scene changes survive the cuts, despite a static stage. In the absence of true arias and other set pieces, these interludes provide most of the dramatic drive. They are also terrific music.

Performances were generally strong. Lisa Eden brought warmth and passion to her Mélisande. The character is a puzzle, and one might have wished for more of the underlying dreaminess, so amazingly evoked by Maria Ewing in the 1992 Vienna Philharmonic recording, but the sense of repressed passion was there, along with her growing hysteria. Nathan Wentworth’s Golaud was a delight. He is a singer of precision and power, the latter perfectly nuanced for the space. The undercurrent of vulnerability in the widower, entranced enough to marry impulsively, was missing. At times, this Golaud seemed simply an abusive spouse.

Tenor Kenneth Gayle gave Pelléas both boyish naivety and mounting passion. He navigated Debussy’s chromatic recitatives with the least assurance: more assured was his final arioso, declaring his love in sumptuous diatonic terms. Mr. Gayle seemed to struggle on lower notes at times, suggesting why the role of Pelléas has been sung successfully by lyric baritones. David B. Morris brought a voice of restrained authority to Arkel. Sadly, the illusion of aged wisdom and intimate commerce with Destiny was shaken by makeup reminiscent of Arte Johnson’s Tyrone F. Horneigh. In the face of Golaud’s ravings, this Arkel came off not so much fatalistic as impotent.

Other Articles:

Tim Smith, Opera Vivente presents adaptation of Debussy's 'Pelleas et Melisande' (Baltimore Sun, March 9)

John Bowen, Why Impressions of Pelléas? Why Now? (Opera Vivente, February 22)
Emmanuel Episcopal’s Parish Hall provided necessary intimacy for a production that focused on the interpersonal elements of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play. A spare, abstract set (designed by Thom Bumblauskas) served effectively for the various settings, but staging was necessarily limited. That might have enhanced the static nature of Maeterlinck’s drama, but John Bowen's direction kept the actors moving, not always purposefully and often distractingly. Some lighting effects (Peter Jakubowski) that were intended to be moody were simply inadequate, when characters stood in darkness or cast shadows on their costars. Costumes were of late-Victorian vintage, contemporaneous with the play and opera, if not particularly evocative of Maeterlinck’s fairy tale vision. Gowns and tails suggested a world where clandestine lovers dress to the nines to keep their midnight trysts.

There is much to be said for small-scale productions that expose audiences to classical musical theater in an intimate, cost-effective way. Surely, there are operas written specifically for such treatment, and others that can benefit from it, but when applied to a score as rich as Debussy’s and a story as inscrutable as Maeterlinck’s, the result seems more like “opera workshop” than true opera.

The final production of Opera Vivente's season, The Magic Flute, runs from May 14 to 22.

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