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Isabel Bayrakdarian as Mélisande (Photo: Michael Cooper)
27 May 2008

Masterpiece Masterfully Rendered in Toronto

I can still remember my first ever “Pelleas et Melisande” in my first ever outing at San Francisco Opera during my first ever visit to that beautiful town.

Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

Golaud, King Arkel’s grandson (Pavlo Hunka), Mélisande (Isabel Bayrakdarian), Geneviève, mother of Pelléas and Golaud (Barbara Dever), Arkel, King of Allemonde (Richard Wiegold), Pelléas, King Arkel’s grandson (Russell Braun), Yniold, Golaud’s son by his first marriage (Erin Fisher), The Doctor (Alain Coulombe). Conductor: Jan Latham-Koenig. Director: Nicholas Muni. Canadian Opera Company.

Above: Isabel Bayrakdarian as Mélisande
All photos by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company


Having run into a local friend unexpectedly at intermission, and having related the above information, he hurriedly said, “ohhhhhhh, you should come back sometime for a real opera.”

Judging from intermission comments recently in Toronto, and some empty seats for part two, the piece apparently remains caviar for the gourmand, rather than bread and butter for the masses. I am hard pressed to quite understand why, especially when the work is treated to such a world class performance as mounted here by Canadian Opera Company.

Dany Lyne’s gorgeous design — ethereal, timeless and haunting — provided the perfect backdrop and playing environment for Debussy’s masterpiece. While the basic construction featured a girdered bridge which elevated actors about ten feet off the stage floor, visual variety was introduced through the addition of well-chosen set pieces (throne, bed, rickshaw, etc.), and the revelation of fold out features such as a hidden stairway and door leading from above to the “depths” of the debris-strewn floor in which “Pelleas” dwelt during much of the first act.

The stage left third of the structure was able to be raised and lowered, creating “Melisande’s” bedroom tower, a beautiful evocation of a depth to the well, and a final descent to the grave for our heroine’s remains, even while her spirit (in the form of a diaphanous bed canopy) ascended to the heavens.

Scrims, opaque spun fiberglass drops, and a cyclorama fronted by expressive filigreed tree branches, were inventively lit by Thomas C. Hase with his perfectly judged special effects and a highly creative design. He was assisted by John Prautschy. A glowing blue moon, passing torchlight, silhouette imagery, the up-lit fountain, and the down lit bed and stairs were among the superbly calculated effects. A passionate orb of a sun called to mind Stephen Crane’s “the red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.”

Ms. Lyne’s vibrant Asian-influenced costumes could also hardly have been bettered, and the choice to put “Melisande” in vivid reds proved to be inspired, completely playing against the usual wispy “type” for this mysterious character. Indeed, our heroine’s first appearance behind a scrim, in a rich Chinese red dress with an impossibly long train, and draped in an over-sized off-white veil was a triumph of character statement, making her at once irresistibly alluring and impossibly indefinite. The minute attention to each and every technical detail created true theatrical magic.

pelleas07.png(l – r) Alain Coulombe as the Doctor, Barbara Dever as Geneviève (behind Golaud), Pavlo Hunka as Golaud, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Mélisande and Richard Wiegold as Arkel

Such a top notch design would go for nothing, of course, without a cast up to the musical challenges, and COC came up with winners all around. At any given period there is always a dream team for the title roles, and on the basis of this visit, I would have to say the mantle has been passed to stars Russell Braun and Isabel Bayrakdarian, Canadians both. Although Mr. Braun has more experience with his well-known “Pelleas” (including a memorable Robert Wilson version in Salzburg with Dawn Upshaw), there is nothing in these fearsomely demanding roles that eludes either one of these superb interpreters.

Ms. Bayrakdarian offered a most compelling take on “Melisande” with a bit more starch than some. She displayed a wonderful technique, an even production, fine projection with a pleasing point to the tone, and thorough attention to each quicksilver shift of mood and subtext. Mr. Braun now pretty much owns his role, and he negotiates “Pelleas’“ highest reaches with seasoned perfection, singing with a robust and responsive baritone that has mastered every nuance of his tortured attraction to his brother’s wife.

Pavlo Hunka’s compelling “Golaud” was every inch the powerful linchpin central to the drama, as it needs to be. He managed more variety than other interpreters that I have seen, and his obsession with finding confirmation of the betraying physical act was well-balanced between heartsick introspection and macho bluster.

pelleas09.pngRussell Braun as Pelléas and Isabel Bayrakdarian as Mélisande

Richard Wiegold used his dark imposing bass to etch an unusually detailed portrait of “Arkel,” and he was well rewarded at curtain call for his efforts. Barbara Dever offered dramatic power and a steady outpouring of her rich mezzo for a fine assumption of “Genevieve.” The small role of the “Physician” was fleshed out with wonderful stage business, and the few rolling phrases required were well intoned by Alain Coulombe.” Only Erin Fisher’s attractive if light-voiced “Yniold” seemed one size too small to ride the occasional dense orchestrations.

Director Nicholas Muni made masterful use of every playing space and level available to him; he created memorable, chills-inducing stage pictures and groupings through well-motivated blocking; and he could give a masters class on effective character development and interaction. My God, here is a director who not only understands the work, but serves it! Let’s hope his creative philosophy starts an epidemic in the opera world. For this is decidedly a brilliant mounting of Debussy’s “Pelleas,” rather than Muni’s. Would that all directors “got” that difference.

The superb playing from the pit was diligently led by Jan Latham-Koenig. The acoustic of the house seemed very grateful to this impressionist work, even if I did think that it favored the orchestra slightly more than the singers. This richly detailed reading not only had the wispy, blurry succession of solo lines flawlessly interwoven, but the blocks of woodwinds, strings, and horns were individually and collectively well-knit into a clean ensemble. The passionate outbursts were all the more effective for the placid churnings that came before, and the inner life and forward thrust of the rhythmic pulse was never lost.

The beautiful “new” house in the Four Seasons Center would be an architectural pride of any world city, and it is perfectly complemented on stage by a stunning “Pelleas et Melisande” that makes the best possible case for this elusive work. Will this opus ever become a bread-and-butter opera? Perhaps not.

But for those of us who occasionally relish the highest quality caviar on our musical menu, this totally winning production was a very rich feast.

James Sohre © 2008

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