Opera

Shadows and Light

Director Netia Jones takes SFO back into the mystic with “Pelléas et Mélisande”

Pelléas et Mélisande’s scenic design by Netia Jones captivates in this year’s production. (Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)

I set out for opening night of Claude Debussy’s only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, more fixated on what I might see rather than hear, largely because director Netia Jones’ set design for Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2021 had so wonderfully captured the esoteric magic and interplay between art and science present in both that opera and the Shakespeare play on which it is based.

So it is again for Jones’ production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera adapted from the play by Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. As director, scenic, costume and projection designer, Jones has built out an eerie and exquisite watery, green world filled with the psychic tropes of doppelgängers, mirrors and shadows alongside intermittent holographic scientific notations. In all, the production animates the arcane nature of Debussy’s opera, while nodding to our own ailing planet and psyches.

In a “behind the scenes” video produced by SFO, Jones discusses her focus on Maeterlinck’s play as source material. Written at the end of the 19th century at a time of great change and industrialization, concerns about humanity’s relationship to nature, Jones notes, “are central in Maeterlinck’s thinking,” and “we’re very aware of nature gone wrong…there’s a lot of description of decay and a lack of freshness, a lack of fresh water or lack of fresh air. And I think this brings Pelléas et Mélisande right up to date to our current crisis and our explorations into how to enable us to continue living without destruction.”

Debussy also found himself drawn to Maeterlinck’s play, writing that “it has an evocative language whose sensitivity could find its extension in music and in an orchestral setting.” His adaptation leaves Maeterlinck’s text largely intact; the innovations come in the music itself, which eschews many of the facets normally associated with opera…like arias, for instance. In his pre-opera lecture at SFO, Oliver Prezant referred to Debussy’s Pelléas as subtle; “enigmatic” seems to be another word typically associated with the work, but atypically used to describe opera.

Left to Right; Samantha Hankey (Mélisande), Huw Montague Rendall (Pelléas), Zachary Nelson (Golaud). (Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)

On its face, the story doesn’t veer too far from typical opera fare. Wandering in the forest in Dantesque fashion, Golaud (baritone Zachary Nelson, who delivers a riveting performance as the increasingly jealous and violent grandson of the lecherous and ill King Arkel, played commandingly by bass Raymond Aceto Aug. 9; bass baritone Ben Brady on Aug. 18) encounters the mysterious Mélisande (mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey in her SFO debut). They marry, but Mélisande soon falls in love with Golaud’s half-brother Pelléas (baritone Huw Montague Rendall, also in his SFO debut). This love triangle fares as well as most operatic love triangles do: Golaud kills Pelléas and Mélisande also dies, shortly after childbirth. Hankey’s performance is the stand-out in this show—her singing is lovely, but her acting also is visceral, embodying both loneliness and terror vividly. Well, there are no individual bad performances in this show, although the orchestra is the true musical star.

Conductor Harry Bicket doesn’t just rise to the occasion of Debussy’s groundbreaking operatic score, he also meets Jones’ vision of a timeless—sometimes futuristic, sometimes medieval—setting. The music and visuals mesh to create a meditative and sometimes-trippy experience over the course of three-plus hours (in a good way).

Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon, in a three-part recorded talk on the opera a few years back, noted one would need a multiple-day retreat to address all the various aspects of Pelléas et Mélisande. So it is with this story, in which I have yet to mention the artistic and literary Symbolist movement to which Maeterlinck belonged; the modernist era heralded by Debussy in this opera; and Richard Wagner’s ubiquitous looming presence (Pelléas et Mélisande may lack arias, but it certainly has leitmotifs). Conlon also noted Pelléas et Mélisande’s propensity to inspire lifelong obsession and “addiction,” despite being relatively unknown by most opera goers. Case in point: This season’s production is the first time SFO has mounted the opera since 1977, so catch it while you can.


Pelléas et Mélisande

8:30 pm July 19, July 28

8 pm Aug. 3, 9, 18

Music by Claude Debussy

Libretto by Claude Debussy adapted from the play by Maurice Maeterlinck

Sung in French with English and Spanish translation screen

$40-$380, plus fees; $15 standing room

First-time NM residents are eligible for a 40% discount; call the box office in advance: (505) 986-5900 or (800) 280-4654. Day-of discounts available for students, seniors and military via the box office by phone or in person.

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