Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Certain Magic

June 25, 2011

Corinne Winters, Liam Bonner, Gregoy Dahl Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

The 2011 Opera Theater of Saint Louis festival season concludes this weekend, and I’ve traveled back to my old stomping grounds to catch up with what has turned out to be a very high profile and successful spring and summer for the company. OTSL is blessed with a number of benefits including the very intimate theater at the Loretto-Hilton Center and one of the nation’s great orchestras, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, as the house band. Both of these features paid off enormously with this season's production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, the company's first, in a staging under the direction of David Alden. This is one of the most beautiful operas in the standard repertory and also one of the most fragile. Debussy’s bold response to the monolithic work of Wagner did as much to set the tone for 20th-century music as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, or the “Tristan chord.” Pelléas just did it more quietly. Any production of this opera requires a fine orchestra and the players of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Stephen Lord brought the subtle coloring of Debussy’s score to life beautifully. They were joined by a solid and involving young cast. Liam Bonner was Pelléas. He’s got a sizable baritone that’s warm and brighter on the top and he handled the “childlike” qualities of the young lover well. I greatly look forward to his appearances in Los Angeles next year as Sid in Britten’s Albert Herring. Bonner was cast opposite soprano Corinne Winters who made one of the more enigmatic opera characters, Mélisande, sympathetic and engaging. Gregory Dahl sang Golaud with a fair amount of menace. I was again very impressed with the young Michael Kepler Meo, an OTSL veteran who returned as Yniold. He managed Alden’s direction, including a mad scene, and the vocal work with remarkable assuredness and real musicality much as he had in his appearances in Britten’s Turn of the Screw in Los Angeles earlier this year.

Corinne Winters and Liam Bonner Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

If there was a downside for me to the evening it was some of David Alden’s direction. The set was one of Alden’s preferred highly patterned rooms with large movable curved walls that create spaces more imagined than naturalistic. The action is moved to the time of the work’s composition, although there are still several Medieval references to Maeterlinck’s original text. All of this was sharp and eye-catching. There were several striking ephemeral images as well such as when Yniold appears as the two lovers visit the cave in Act II. He is carrying a mirrored ball and the projected lighting from it fills the theater, producing a similar reaction from the audience as the moonlight entering the cave does for Mélisande.

But for all the impressionistic imagery, Alden also strives for a clarity of emotional interaction between the characters. Golaud is much more angry and hostile throughout the entire performance. Scenes that are often left somewhat ambiguous in the hands of others, like when Golaud takes Pelléas into the vaults of the castle, are played as straight-forward thriller more than abstract suggestions of psychological conflicts. The love triangle in the libretto is clarified and dramatized to the point that the proceedings lose some of their mysterious beauty in favor of action akin to Sleeping With the Enemy. But the need for definition in the dramatic action doesn’t manage to overwhelm the show as a whole, and Debussy’s beautiful impressionistic masterpiece received a loving and much appreciated welcome to Saint Louis.


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