Estados Unidos

Santa Fe Opera 1: In Darker Light

Jesse Simon
miércoles, 9 de agosto de 2023
Jones, Pelléas et Mélisande © 2023 by Curtis Brown/Santa Fe Opera Jones, Pelléas et Mélisande © 2023 by Curtis Brown/Santa Fe Opera
Santa Fe, viernes, 28 de julio de 2023. Santa Fe Opera. Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Netia Jones, director. Huw Montague Rendall (Pelléas), Samantha Hankey (Mélisande), Zachary Nelson (Golaud), Raymond Aceto (Arkel), Susan Graham (Geneviève) and Kai Edgar (Yniold). Orchestra of the Santa Fe Opera. Harry Bicket, conductor
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Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a work in which brief flickers of light are forever trying to emerge from the surrounding gloom: for every glint from a golden ring there is a bottomless pool waiting to swallow it whole; beacons from distant ships are engulfed by impenetrable fog; and there are places surrounding the castle where the midday sun never reaches the forest floor. The notion of darkness as an inevitable default state was central to the new production that appeared as part of this summer’s Santa Fe Opera season – the work’s first appearance on the Santa Fe stage in over forty-five years – for which director Netia Jones created a patient, contemplative world that remained attuned to both the elemental symbolism of Maeterlinck’s text and the pervasive unease in Debussy’s score.

Although there was often a lot going on – including near-constant video projections of slowly shifting abstract textures and several scenes in which actors doubled the singers – the stage remained uncluttered and the presiding mood was one of introspection, understatement and vague anxiety. Much of the action took place within what appeared to be an underground bunker constructed for the purposes of some obscure scientific experiment. The space was reached by a set of matching spiral staircases – one on each side of the stage – and its most conspicuous feature was a large glass box filled with low green vegetation. (The use of colour throughout the evening was pleasingly restrained: the green of the plants and the orange of Mélisande’s costumes in the early acts were all the more notable amid the cool darkness of their surroundings).

The staging made little attempt to explain its ominously scientific setting; it seemed far more concerned with communicating nuances of mood through the allusive video imagery that accompanied most of the scenes – the distressed stone textures that appeared between the second and third scenes of Act 2 were especially appealing, suggesting both vestigial life and terminal decay – and through the emotional restraint of its performances. Netia Jones, who was also responsible for the set, costume and video-projection designs, had no difficulty sketching the principal characters with a few well-chosen physical movements – the introverted reticence of Pelléas and the unsettling distance of Mélisande would have been just as clear without the music and dialogue – but the great strength of her direction lay in her ability to create scenes in which almost all emotional excess had been stripped away. Even the most highly charged scenes – especially those between Golaud and Mélisande – were suffused with a low-key hopelessness.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Netia Jones, director. Harry Bicket, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, July 2023. © 2023 by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera.Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Netia Jones, director. Harry Bicket, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, July 2023. © 2023 by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera.

In several scenes, the spare interactions of the singers at the front of the stage were mirrored at the back by a group of actors doubling each character. Although this background action started as straightforward mimicry – as though the set was divided diagonally by a large mirror – by the third act it had started to introduce its own elaborations and departures: the foreground exertions of Pelléas at the foot of Mélisande’s window was accompanied by an altogether more solemn background scene in which Pelléas moved slowly towards an expectantly immobile Mélisande. Yet the extra movement on stage – which often seemed intended to convey a less idealised version of the events in the drama – did little to upset the staging’s unsettling stillness.

The staging also introduced a number of intriguing avenues of interpretation, most notably during the prelude in which Mélisande watches her own double float past in a pool of water. Although the opera itself never explains the events that left the disconsolate Mélisande stranded in the forest, the later appearance of video projections with Mélisande drowning in the water suggested the fascinating possibility that she had, in fact, thrown herself in the water at the opera’s opening and that all the subsequent action was a last-second flashback to the tragic circumstances that pushed her to end her life.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Netia Jones, director. Harry Bicket, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, July 2023. © 2023 by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera.Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Netia Jones, director. Harry Bicket, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, July 2023. © 2023 by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera.

If the staging derived its power from allusion and ambiguity, the central trio of vocal performances gained strength from the directness of their expression. As Pelléas, Huw Montague Rendall was impressive as much for his pliant tone as for the emotional range he brought to his scenes. In his first two encounters with Mélisande his physical awkwardness was matched with a vocal delivery of yearning sensitivity. His shy demeanour began to disappear in the third act: his rapturous response to Mélisande’s hair had an appealing energy and, in the vault scene, he summoned an apprehension bordering on terror. His finest moment, however, may have been the brief solo scene in Act 4, in which the gravity of his impossible situation was put forth with uncomplicated clarity.

Samantha Hankey’s Mélisande generally sounded far less fragile than Golaud’s assessment would seem to indicate. Her strident response to Golaud’s tentative advance in the opening scene was more affronted than frightened and there was an unexpected edge of satisfaction in the elegantly sung hair song of the third act; yet she alternated these moments of forthright lucidity with passages – notably her trancelike scene by the pool at the beginning of the second act – in which she seemed compellingly remote. The emotional poles of her character were delineated most clearly in her two final scenes: by the time of her fourth-act meeting with Pelléas the glassy caprice of earlier scenes had been replaced with a focussed sincerity; and in the final act her disoriented utterances were all the more moving for their undercurrent of resignation.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Netia Jones, director. Harry Bicket, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, July 2023. © 2023 by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera.Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Netia Jones, director. Harry Bicket, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, July 2023. © 2023 by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera.

Zachary Nelson provided the evening with a commanding Golaud whose austerity of manner couldn’t quite conceal his capacity for anger. The gentle placations in his opening encounter with Mélisande – delivered with an elegantly rounded darkness of tone – revealed an unmistakable edge of menace, while his excellent scene in the second act rendered the sudden transition from excessive magnanimity to implacable rage chillingly credible. His most violent moments – his abuse of Mélisande in the fourth act and even his frustrations with Yniold in the third – were notable for their uncomfortable malice, and even his guilty contrition in the fifth act was underscored by an obvious lack of belief in Mélisande’s innocence.

The principals received excellent support from the resigned Arkel of Raymond Aceto and the resilient Geneviève of Susan Graham, while Harry Bicket guided the orchestra through an elegant, understated performance in which mood and pace were held in careful balance. Yet neither the quality of the performances nor the intelligence of the staging were entirely able to dispel the opera’s pervasive pessimism; if one left the auditorium more subdued than elated it is perhaps a tribute to the production’s success in capturing the gloom that makes Pelléas et Mélisande such a troubling, fascinating work.

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