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OPERA REVIEW : Long Beach Successfully Stages Difficult ‘Pelleas’

TIMES MUSIC WRITER

Virgil Thomson used to recount a backstage conversation at the Metropolitan Opera that took place more than 50 years ago. After a performance of “Pelleas et Melisande” led by Pierre Monteux, a well-meaning patron asked the French conductor, “Do you suppose ‘Pelleas’ will ever really be a success?”

Monteux’s pointed reply: “It was never intended to be.”

That remains the case, one was reminded, when Long Beach Opera opened its English-language “Pelleas” Wednesday night in Center Theater at the Long Beach Convention Center.

Debussy’s masterpiece boasts no high notes to speak of--or notice, in this dramatic context--no crowd-grabbing arias, no melodies to hum on the way home from the performance.

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Its touching melodrame is no melodrama, its beauties not glitzy, its charms palpable but vaporous. The work’s greatness lies in the perfection of its balance between music and poetry, and in the way they intertwine to create a drama unique in all opera.

But success or failure awaits any producer of “Pelleas.” Mounting it can be an exercise in overrefinement and preciosity or in literalness and the prosaic.

Michael Milenski and his latest production team--conductor Paul Connelly, stage director Brian Kulick, set and costume designer Mark Wendland and lighting director Craig Pierce--have steered a clear course around the pitfalls in the work. And they have succeeded, undeniably.

Their first decision, to perform the work in the direct but evocative translation of Hugh MacDonald, was the right one; it brings the audience immediately into the middle of the operatic picture, insuring not only that the observers get the dramatic points but also that they will enjoy them enough to return.

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The team followed up with several other right choices.

To play the action on a rounded, Wielandesque disc in front of the stage apron, with the orchestra--seen and heard through a scrim--directly behind, puts the drama squarely in the laps of the observers. It also makes possible a complete understanding of virtually every single word in MacDonald’s translation.

Milenski & Co. did not invent this kind of operatic intimacy, but they have made it work, again and again. It accounts for much of the loyalty the Long Beach company has earned from its audience.

Visual innovation, the other stock-in-trade of this enterprise, may have been pushed too far in some moments. The final tableau, with most of the cast, dead or alive, wearing dark glasses, Magrittely, almost causes laughs at the wrong moment. Generally, however, inappropriate humor has been avoided.

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Wendland’s airy set is surreal, complex, multifarious and symbol-heavy. It includes an ever-present, half-working clock overlooking the orchestral players, debris-trash-litter spread all over the rounded disc-floor, and a number of oddball props (an ancient, horned record-player; rarely used, fold-up wooden chairs; miniature brass animals, etc.).

Edwardian-era wheelchairs--Edwardian in their Goreyness, too--appear, and are used. Three servants (butlers? valets? stagehands?) propel the stage movement, sometimes impersonate the principals, move the props. At the end of Scene 1, Melisande steps into a portable changing room, from which she emerges in Scene 3, redressed. That movable closet later becomes the entrance to the grotto.

Costumes adhere to no followable scheme. What may be Edwardian seems, later, to come from an earlier, 19th-Century period. In Part II--these 14 scenes are divided here into two parts--Pelleas and Golaud leave behind their Gorey-style formal clothes and wear white-and-cream robes of Japanese (or Biblical, you choose) aspect. Can “Rashomon” be far away?

Through all this semi-distracting symbolism, Kulick leads his singing actors in a clear dramatic path. The apprehendable translation helps, of course. More important, the singers know who they are--even when what they are is a mystery--and portray themselves without vagueness.

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James Schwisow, remembered as the Hoffmann in a T-shirt from the 1987 “Tales of Hoffmann,” sings a Pelleas of deep conviction, strong projection and unflagging ardor. What this Pelleas was doing, in the opening scene, occupying a wheelchair and wearing a face-bandage, one can only guess, but his actions thereafter never become unexplainable. And Schwisow’s resonant voice works, handsomely, ringingly, throughout.

Faceted in voice and acting, Michal Shamir’s Melisande counterposes Schwisow with her own forceful and fascinating characterization. Resourceful in every wise, the soprano from Israel--now a member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin--hinted at a rich versatility.

The rest of the cast on Wednesday proved distinguished.

Neil Howlett, a baritone from Great Britain in his United States debut, brought virile vocalism and histrionic strength to his portrayal of Golaud. As Arkel, the veteran American singer, Jerome Hines, sent ringing tones through the hall, as of yore. Martha Jane Howe added her own vocal luster to a sympathetic Genevieve. Richard Stewart sang the part of Yniold, Mel Whitehead that of the Doctor. The three, nonsinging factotums were actors Robert Daniels, Randy Leonard and Keith Levy.

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Under Connelly’s probing and sensitive leadership, a most accomplished orchestra of 60 players gave Debussy’s exigent, beauty-laden score a consistently engaging realization.

Remaining performances are scheduled tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2 p.m.


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