This week’s Cleveland Orchestra production of Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was transcendent in its musical radiance and understanding of the contradictory ambiguity of the libretto, based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s eponymous play. Music Director Franz Welser-Möst conducted, with the production by Los Angeles-based director Yuval Sharon and designed by Mimi Lien, with lighting and projections by Jason H. Thompson. Expectations were high, based on the imaginative brilliance of Sharon’s 2014 production for orchestra of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Sharon filled Pelléas et Mélisande, with magic, but deployed it in very different ways.

<i>Pelléas et Mélisande</i> in Severance Hall © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Pelléas et Mélisande in Severance Hall
© Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The orchestra was seated in tiers on the Severance Hall stage and a partially raised orchestra pit. The principal singers, in costumes designed by Ann Closs-Farley reminiscent of medieval Europe, sang from platforms intermingled among the instrumentalists. The singers were always alone, singing toward the audience, even when the characters interacted with each other. Their actions were minimal and stylized: a slow gesture, a turn of the head. This ritualistic direction emphasized the alienation of the characters from each other and the inability to understand the contradictions in their relationships.

Dominating the rear half of the stage and seeming to float far above the singers and orchestra was a large, completely enclosed clear glass box. As the music began, the box began to fill with mist, thus obscuring the view within. The mist became the central metaphor for the opera’s themes: ambiguity, half-truth, obfuscation. As the opera progressed, the mists would momentarily part for a series of tableaux vivants with a group of non-singing actors and dancers who explicated (or sometimes further obscured) the drama. Actors would sometimes present simultaneous, contradictory versions of the action. But then the mists suddenly and magically enveloped the scene, leaving us with more questions than answers. Puppets were sometimes used, thus further separating the audience from reality. 

Martina Janková (Mélisande) and Elliot Madore (Pelléas) © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Martina Janková (Mélisande) and Elliot Madore (Pelléas)
© Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

A particularly striking image occurred in Act 2, Scene 1, when Mélisande loses her wedding ring into the deep water of a fountain. We suddenly see a black ring encircling a bright blue circle. Then we see hands and are aware that we are at the bottom of the fountain looking upward toward the sky as Mélisande drops the ring. In the second part of the opera, encompassing Acts 4 and 5, the quasi-realistic representations and stylized movement are mostly replaced by abstract dance, choreographed by Danielle Agami. At the climactic moment when Golaud kills Pelléas in Act 4, we don’t see the attack; the mist slowly becomes blood red and then fades to black. The technical complexities of the action in the glass box must have been daunting; only a very few times were the dancers not precisely in sync with the theatrical magic taking place.

Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Golaud) and Julie Mathevet (Yniold) with dancers Stephen Beitler, Julia Aks © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Golaud) and Julie Mathevet (Yniold) with dancers Stephen Beitler, Julia Aks
© Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The singing cast was very strong: Martina Janková seemed perfectly cast as a fragile Mélisande, although she convinced us that she probably never told the truth. Janková’s light soprano was perfect for Debussy’s music, especially in Mélisande’s very soft music at the end of the opera. Elliot Madore was also vulnerable as a handsome Pelléas, although Madore’s baritone was more robust than the baryton-martin voice Debussy calls for. Bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann was brilliant as the conflicted Golaud, Mélisande’s husband and Pelléas’s half-brother. Golaud’s rage and jealousy were often barely contained, but Müller-Brachmann never resorted to shouting. Bass Peter Rose was the anchor of the story as the old King Arkel. Rose’s singing was magisterial. Mezzo Nancy Maultsby was serene in her letter-reading scene as Geneviève. Golaud’s son Yniold was sung by soprano Julie Mathevet, who was convincing as a boy. 

The performance by The Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst was beyond praise, from the most delicately radiant phrases to full Wagnerian climaxes. The dramatic tension never waned during the opera’s three hours. The effect of music and theatrics made an overwhelmingly intense evening that left the listener drained at its quietly tragic conclusion.