In his program notes for Pelléas et Mélisande, director K. James McDowell refers to the only opera Claude Debussy ever completed as "a towering masterpiece in the operatic repertoire."

Tenor Zach Borichevsky as Pelléas and soprano Sydney Mancasola as Mélisande in AVA's 2012 producti © Academy of Vocal Arts
Tenor Zach Borichevsky as Pelléas and soprano Sydney Mancasola as Mélisande in AVA's 2012 producti
© Academy of Vocal Arts

The version of Pelléas et Mélisande concluding its run at Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) last Saturday was itself a masterpiece – solidly performed, exquisitely sung, thoughtfully directed and conducted, and enchanting in setting and lighting design. Overall, the AVA production was the single strongest, most complete showing I've seen from the premier opera performance training academy since I've been reviewing their productions.

Having previously seen Pelléas et Mélisande set in a different time and place contributed to my appreciation of McDowell’s production choices for this version. Usually, the AVA presents works traditionally. This production works better set in a customary mythical time and place.

It is a dark and haunting tale of forbidden love, spun at what can become an agonizingly slow pace. Pelléas et Mélisande is the tragic story of a love triangle between the primitive Prince Golaud who finds a confused Mélisande in a forest and makes her his bride, and his younger, more appealing brother Pelléas, who falls for the one woman he can’t have. Like moths to a flame, Pelléas and Mélisande are drawn to each other. Golaud is a violently jealous husband and kills Pelléas after he overhears them declare their love for one another. Mélisande dies after giving birth to a daughter whom Golaud never confirms is his.

Debussy adapted the libretto himself from a play by Maurice Maeterlinck: an unusual practice for French composers in the early 20th century. The score is also unexpectedly quiet and subtle, which allows the libretto to be heard and absorbed – but not necessarily understood, because the words may not mean what you think they mean. "Light" means more than "illumination," and "truth" is more than "what is not false."

Because the Helen Corning Warden Theater is small, a single piano played by music director Luke Housner accompanied the musicians, and not a full orchestra. This conductor-less fully staged version was an unexpected boon to my enjoyment of the performance, surprisingly allowing more focus to linger on the singers and on Debussy’s lush interludes between acts and scenes.

The resident artist singing the role of Mélisande on March 3, soprano Sydney Mancasola, defined the role from her first appearance on stage. Her soprano was pitch-perfect and clear, and her emotions were honest and evident in her expressions and body language throughout the opera. While Mélisande can seem somewhat silly and simple, Mancasola portrayed her without irony, which actually added to the character’s effectiveness.

As Prince Golaud, baritone Zachary Nelson turned in a commanding performance. He was alternately boorish, hot-tempered, manipulative, and tortured in his finest performance to date with the AVA. He sang and acted the role with aplomb, receiving the warmest ovation at curtain call for his portrayal.

As the younger brother Pelléas, tenor Zach Borichevsky possessed all the innocence and grace his character's older brother lacked. Golaud is dark and foreboding; Pelléas is light and warm. At the outset, it wasn’t clear how Pelléas felt about Mélisande, though she clearly was intrigued by him. However, as the opera progressed, Borichevsky grew into his part as the unwitting lover and undeserving pawn, murdered by his own brother in a jealous rage, presumably to even the score between the "gods" of love and vengeance. Borichevsky’s face radiated innocence, and his voice had a light, pure quality, perfect for the role.

The other roles were beautifully sung, including mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa as Geneviève, mother of Golaud and Pelléas, who had lovely articulation. As Arkel, the old King of Allemonde and grandfather to the brothers, bass Patrick Guetti earned an accolade of his own.

A most melancholy fairy tale, Pelléas et Mélisande is a challenging show to take on. Because it lacks arias, there are no signature pieces to stir the audience, and yet the audience was stirred. In the AVA's capable hands, it was a patchwork of vocal, musical, and visual colors, pulling you in and dancing around you, rendered with light and darkness. But not so much darkness that the audience strained to engage with the opera or its players, as can sometimes happen with decidedly dark and potentially dreary shows. All of which makes the AVA's latest offering that much more impressive.

*****