Exactly 99 years ago yesterday, one of the most intriguing, perplexing and intoxicating operas was first heard in Paris. The audience, unprepared for the symbolist story or the subtle musical language, hissed the performance, but that boorish behavior could not keep Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" from being ultimately recognized as a masterpiece.
The challenges of the work, musical and theatrical, have kept it from being in the forefront of the repertoire. Baltimore Opera has never presented it; the last production in this region was apparently in Washington, 40 years ago. That neglect is about to be set right this week, though with a decided twist.
Opera Vivente, the plucky, tiny-budgeted company dedicated to intimate and inventive stagings, will be the unlikely vehicle for bringing "Pelleas et Melisande" to a Baltimore stage. Artistic director John Bowen and music director Aaron Sherber have pared Debussy's lush orchestration down to 16 instruments. And a young cast will move through the heady, five-act drama of doomed love on a small church-hall stage.
It's a far cry from the usual trappings of a "Pelleas" production, but, judging by past Opera Vivente efforts, this should be an eye- and ear-opener.
"It has been a fascinating, ever-deepening process working on this opera," Bowen says. "Does anyone ever really get to the bottom of it? There is an endless telescoping back and forth of meaning."
A sort of impressionistic variation on Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," Debussy's opera, drawn from a Maurice Matterlinck play, involves an unplanned passion in a mythical, autumnal kingdom ruled by King Arkel. Melisande is found lost in the woods by Golaud, a prince; the two are married.
Golaud's half-brother, Pelleas, slowly falls in love with Melisande, and she with him. Golaud discovers them in their one and only kiss, and kills Pelleas. Later, Melisande dies, never answering her husband's question about the nature of her love for Pelleas.
The nature of the plot, which unfolds at a leisurely pace and in a kind of aural mist, without any clear resolution, has left some people cold. Bowen finds it inspiring. He came across a letter Debussy wrote in response to a criticism that the characters in the opera were strange, ambiguous, unrealistic.
"Debussy said he felt they were more real precisely because they were complicated and self-contradictory," Bowen says. "Real people aren't just real bad or real good, faithful or not faithful. That colored my approach to the staging.
"Rather than playing up the strangeness, I'm trying to help the singers find the subtext, the history behind the part of the lives we see onstage."
For Bowen, the opera boils down to an issue of truth.
"No one faces up to the truth in themselves," he says. "Arkel is not a good king; he hides behind destiny and fate as an elaborate rationalization for not being an effective king. Melisande doesn't tell the truth, either. She thinks she can be faithful to her husband and fall in love with Pelleas. She doesn't understand why she can't have everything she wants."
Bowen, whose past Opera Vivente efforts include a provocative "Dido and Aeneas" set in a high school and a "Cosi fan tutte" set in 1950s Havana, is giving "Pelleas" a somewhat vague look, in keeping with the rather amorphous quality of the opera.
"Our set [designed by Anthea Smith] is almost entirely made out of fabric," Bowen says. "Eight different locales are called for in the opera, which would be impossible on our little stage. But the fabric will get moved into various configurations to suggest the scenes."
Tackling a large-scale challenge with small-scale means is just the sort of risk Opera Vivente savors.
"I'm sure there are purists who will crucify me," Bowen says. "But hopefully the basic spirit of the piece will come through even with the reduced forces. It might even have greater impact from a dramatic standpoint because of being done this way."
Music director Sherber agrees.
"Basically, I think that 'Pelleas' is a chamber opera," he says, "except that it happens to have a large orchestra. The cast is small and the action is intimate. The style of the text and the story generally lend themselves well to a small house like ours and can actually seem more out of place in a cavernous house like the Metropolitan Opera."
The cast includes Laura Antonina Vicari as Melisande, Daniel Holmes as Pelleas, Joshua Saxon as Golaud. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. Tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors. Call 410-547- 7997.
Calling choral music fans
It looks like a great weekend for fans of choral music.
The Annapolis Chorale will perform Puccini's "Messa di Gloria," a setting of the Latin Mass. It's an early work that reveals much of the promise the composer would go on to fulfill in the realm of opera. Written in 1880, the score was forgotten until 1951, long after the composer's death. Its tunefulness alone makes it appealing; the jaunty "Gloria" is particularly memorable. The dramatic touches in the score also hit home (some of them were later borrowed by the composer for his operas).
J. Ernest Green will conduct the chorale and orchestra in Puccini's Mass; the program also includes Mozart's Symphony No. 29. The concert is at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. Tickets are $22.50. Call 410-263-1906.
The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, led by Tom Hall, will offer two contemplative works of sacred music - Gabriel Faure's "Requiem" from the late 19th century and Morten Lauridsen's "Lux Aeterna" from the late 20th.
The exquisitely crafted "Requiem," which largely dispenses with the bleakest texts from the ancient Latin rite, is one of the standards of the choral repertoire. Lauridsen, a faculty member of the University of Southern California, wrote "Lux Aeterna" in 1997. It has proven to be one of the most popular choral pieces in recent times.
"It's very interesting, very reflective, very easy on the ears, kind of New Age-y," Hall says. "It has wonderful, gentle, lush chords and nice tunes - which makes a good complement to the Faure work. Usually, the standard work would be done second and the new one first, but I'm giving the Lauridsen piece pride of place."
The concert is at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St. Tickets are $25 to $35. Call 410-523-7070.
This weekend also marks the 20th and final year of the Maryland Handel Festival, the remarkable enterprise that has been exploring all of Handel's English oratorios, presented in order of composition. Paul Traver will conduct the University of Maryland Chorus, Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra and a lineup of soloists that includes soprano Linda Mabbs and countertenor Derek Lee Ragin.
"Theodora" from 1750 will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday; "Jeptha" from 1752 at 3 p.m. Sunday. Both concerts are in the University of Maryland's new Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive, College Park. Tickets are $15 to $30. Cal 301-405-7847.