Presented in collaboration with the Cincinnati Opera
Music Hall
20 October 2017

Music by Claude Debussy
Libretto based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s play of the same title

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Director: James Darrah
Scenic designer: Adam Rigg
Costume designer: Mattie Ullrich
Projection designer: Adam Larsen
Lighting director: Pablo Santiago

Pelléas: Phillip Addis
Mélisande: Naomi O’Connell
Golaud: Brian Mulligan
Arkel: Richard Wiegold
Geneviève: Nancy Maultsby
Yniold: Chloé Briot
Shepherd: Thomas Dreeze
Doctor: Thomas Dreeze

I arrived at Music Hall quite early for yesterday evening’s performance, which not only gave me a chance to look around the spruced-up facility, but also an opportunity to sit in on the discussion about Pelléas et Mélisande with Louis Langrée, the CSO’s Music Director, and director James Darrah that was moderated by Evans Mirageas, the Cincinnati Opera’s Artistic Director. It was fascinating to hear Maestro Langrée’s description of the wealth of tonal colors Debussy uses to tell the opera’s story, the motifs the composer associated with the three principal characters and the way they are woven into the orchestration, and the dramatic impact that can be made by moments of silence. It certainly helped me to be a more active listener and really immerse myself in the atmosphere the music creates. Mr. Darrah’s comments were also very interesting, as this was definitely not the typical concert format. The setting relied on a variety of lighting arrangements and an abstract background onto which videos could be projected to suggest locations – i.e., the forest, rooms in the castle, the grotto, etc. As he explained it, elaborate, realistic sets would actually detract from the work’s dramatic power rather than enhance it; this is one case where less really is more. The soloists were dressed in timeless costumes that reflected no particular period or place, with Mélisande in a long, flowing white gown embellished with trails of embroidered, naturalistic-looking leaves and flowers. Throughout the evening, the singers moved around the stage area so that they were sometimes on a platform running along the apron and at other times back behind the orchestra. This was part of an approach that made the instrumental forces an integral part of the drama – almost an additional character. Mr. Darrah had obviously worked carefully with them in their role portrayals, right down to the manner in which individuals moved their hands. The background projections, all in shades of white, gray, and black, could suggest anything from waves to passing clouds; at one point, Mélisande’s face was visible among what looked like blossoming branches in springtime. She didn’t have cascades of long hair, so that the scenes with Pelléas and Golaud in which her abundant tresses figure could only be implied. But it worked.
The musical performance was top-notch, with Maestro Langrée’s love for this opera evident throughout. The orchestra’s playing was simply exquisite – precise, transparent, and yes, wonderfully colorful. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has attained world-class stature, with the ensemble recently having completed a European tour that included an appearance at the Proms. (Forgive my bragging, but the CSO has always been among leading American orchestras, with previous Music Directors including Leopold Stokowski, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Goossens, Max Rudolf, Thomas Schippers, and Jesús López-Cobos. Richard Strauss even appeared on the podium in the early 20th century.) Maestro Langrée’s reading of Debussy’s score was beautifully nuanced and included some of those eloquent moments of silence to which he had referred. The cast likewise was excellent, with no weak links anywhere. Naomi O’Connell was a mezzo Mélisande, yet her lyric timbre often suggested that of a soprano. Like all of the soloists, she displayed crystal-clear diction. The CSO opted for a baritone rather than a tenor Pelléas, and Phillip Addis could lighten his attractive lyric voice when necessary. I would still prefer a tenor in the part to heighten the contrast between the two brothers (Jonas Kaufmann has indicated he wants to sing the role), but that’s just personal preference and in no way a reflection on Mr. Addis’ outstanding portrayal. He was matched by a powerhouse Golaud in Brian Mulligan with a rich, commanding instrument that he used to create a memorable portrait of this complex, tortured, but in many ways good man. As an aside, Maestro Langrée pointed out in the discussion that Geneviève is not Arkel’s daughter, though he is the grandfather of both Pelléas and Golaud. Ergo, the widowed Geneviève had married her husband’s brother, a pattern also seen with Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though there’s no suggestion that Pelléas’ father murdered Golaud’s. (Which also makes the two half-brothers first cousins as well!) Richard Wiegold’s sonorous, opulent bass was ideal for conveying Arkel’s essential humanity, while Nancy Maultsby brought an attractively warm mezzo to Geneviève. Chloé Briot sang Yniold with an appealing light mezzo, and it was easy to understand why she’s establishing an international reputation not only in this role, but also as the Child in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. I must admit that I really prefer a boy treble as Yniold, but I realize how demanding this can be for a child singer. (There is a YouTube video of a production with such casting.) And again, it’s just a preference and no reflection on the quality of Ms. Briot’s singing. The cast was rounded out by baritone Thom Dreeze as the Shepherd and the Doctor. There were also three actresses involved in last night’s performance – Erin Carr, Mary Budza, and Aiden Sims – but I honestly couldn’t see them and don’t know what function they served. That was a consequence of where I was sitting, namely right in the first row of the orchestra section, right up against the stage. (It was amazing to hear Mr. Mulligan at forte just feet away from me!) My location usually didn’t seem to affect the balance of sound among the orchestra’s different instrumental groups or between orchestra and singers. There were a couple of times when the soloists were positioned behind the orchestra that they were more difficult to hear, but that may well have been a result of where I was sitting. The renovation has evidently given Music Hall superb acoustics, so those seated elsewhere in the auditorium may have had no problems. The renovation has also significantly reduced the number of seats (there were previously more than 3,500), but even so, there were quite a few vacant places yesterday evening. That’s unfortunate, because any absent local opera or classical music enthusiasts who aren’t planning to attend tonight’s performance will have missed a fabulous experience. At the conclusion, there were standing ovations for all involved and loud bravos for many, Maestro Langrée most of all. I hope we can look forward to more collaborations between the Orchestra and Opera in the future.