Friday, June 20, 2014

Review: (Toronto) Pelléas et Mélisande

(photo by Darryl Block)
Debussy’s Singing Painting
by Ramya Jegatheesan

Pelléas et Mélisande is the story of two brothers who love a mysterious woman found in the forest. It is a love triangle, a tragedy, and Debussy’s only completed opera.

For this production, Against the Grain takes us outside into the lovely garden enclave of the Canadian Opera Company’s Front Street East office and rehearsal space. This beautiful courtyard with its iron gates secrets the audience and cast away from the noise and bustle of the city though occasionally we can still hear the whirring of a helicopter overhead.

There is something magical, unusual, and perfect about watching this opera outside where you can hear birdsong, where nightfall embraces both the stage and audience, and there is no need to simulate the sun, trees, or wind. I cannot imagine seeing it indoors now, or even with an orchestra.

The solo piano is just right: Julien LeBlanc’s performance is gentle and subtle and never threatens to overpower the natural space. And the intimacy of this space allows us to experience opera on a different scale: the cast is just feet away, sometimes inches. This not only helps to connect us with the characters, but has the effect of making us more than spectators: we become quiet participants.

Against the Grain’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a delicate, meditative piece laced with melancholy and a quiet beauty. There is a sense of moodiness and deep nihilism that pervades this opera. The characters drift in an interior world where meaning is elusive, especially Melisande whose origins and past we never come to know, but this elusiveness lends itself to interpretation and reflection. You may lose yourself in the music and long silences, slipping into reflections and interpretations of your own.

The cast is wonderful. Megan Latham’s Geneviève has a voice that sounds like sunshine: bright and warm; Alain Coulombe’s Arkel is poignant, honourable, and frail; and Andrea Nuñez’s Yniold is full of youthful innocence.

The obsessive Golaud is well-played by Gregory Dahl, who is rough and brusque, and adds a sense of lurking danger to the story. He is in every way a foil to the gentler, kinder Pelléas played by Etienne Dupuis with sensitivity and joy. Miriam Khalil’s Mélisande is delicate, vulnerable, and breathtaking. She is a joy to hear.

There are few climaxes in this slow-moving opera, but when they happen they are beautiful and emotional. Apart from a death scene, which felt a little stilted, Against the Grain put on an exquisite show with their trademark innovation and artistry. At times, I felt as I were watching a singing painting, dreamy and filled with suggestion, longing, and secrets unexpressed. Kudos to Director Joel Ivany and the entire team.

June 19 - 25
Running Time: 190 minutes including one intermission. As of this publication three performances are sold out.
Read also: First-person pieces by Miriam Khalil, Joel Ivany and Étienne Dupuis on preparation for this production.

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