Cracking Up

Pelléas and Mélisande

Minnesota Opera


Loring Playhouse Theatre Company

ODILON REDON'S FLOATING eye hangs above the night palace of the mythical kingdom of Allemonde in the Minnesota Opera's production of Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande. In the 1870s and '80s, the French Redon created his hallmark motif, a disembodied head or weightless eye flying over compressed landscapes of charcoal or lithograph; in the bizarre "Eye-Balloon," a harnessed eyeball carries a basket into the stratus. While later in his career Redon would devote the same proto-surrealist approach to lushly colorful paintings on mythological themes, these influential early pieces seem to originate beyond the realm of the literal and logical.

So it is that Debussy's enigmatic opera, closely based on a symbolist drama by Maurice Maeterlinck, has been designed to evoke the dream-state aesthetic of Redon. After Prince Golaud, lost in thick forest, meets the cryptic Mélisande, the pair returns, already wed, to the sun-starved castle of Golaud's blind grandfather, King Arkel. Golaud, a widower giant, knows no more about his bride than that she has lost a crown in a pool, and that she "has been hurt by everyone"; Arkel sees the ineluctable design of destiny in the pairing. Yet soon after they arrive, Mélisande takes up a chaste and convoluted flirtation with Golaud's half-brother Pelléas, losing her wedding ring in a charmed fountain. Even as Golaud's jealousy mounts, the cause-and-effect relationships in this poetic plot are subordinated to perception, ambiguity, and emotion. We learn that Golaud's father is dying, that he is not dying, that a horse has fallen on Golaud, that Mélisande wants to leave, that she does not leave, that there is a famine in the kingdom and a suffocating stagnance in a chasm beneath the castle.

None of which exactly matters. Instead, it is the power of the symbolic and the unconscious that seems to be at issue, an emphasis captured by the Minnesota Opera's sublime presentation. Adapted from a production at Opera North in Leeds, England, the set consists of a collection of unornamented chalk outlines of the castle and skewed-angle interiors with spartan white chambers. A circular fountain in one outdoor scene becomes a white spiral seen through the window of the next. From some vantage points, the
2-D house seems to be hurtling through a dark universe; from others, it is seen to be bent backward as if knocked off its moorings. The figures of dialogue and scene are similarly unattached to any firm figurative meaning.

Taking its melodic impulses from the orchestration, and without arias or standard vocal repetitions, Debussy's score demands that the listener meet Maeterlinck's curious story halfway. Yet the decidedly cool reception afforded this sensitive and well-sung production--a fifth of the seats for the sold-out, opening night show were empty after intermission--suggests that Minnesota opera audiences don't appreciate the challenge. (Apparently, Theatre de la Jeune Lune's production of the drama last year met with a similar fate, closing early.) If there is an upside to this, it may be that ticketless enthusiasts, stymied by the Minnesota Opera's chronic seat shortage, may now undertake the time-honored tradition of sneaking into the theater with the smokers after intermission to reclaim the seats of vacated babbitts.

After a two-year vacation, the Loring Playhouse Theatre Company returns with a difficult project of its own, an updated, video-propelled overhaul of Macbeth. Couching Mickey B's coup d'etat as a corporate takeover, director Jason McLean has transformed this tale of greed and transgression into a kinetic, channel-flipping news broadcast. Of McClean's many other bold interpretations, some are intriguing (the weird sisters are played in music video form by Babes in Toyland); some obtuse (Lady Macbeth's character has been divided into two Ladies Macbeth, one amorous, one ambitious); and some dumb (the transvestite Duncan's refugee sons are fey playboys, randomly practicing incest and golf swings).

Among the deliberate image overkill (c.f. the Oliver Stone Institute of the Egregious) the Loring effectively employs a simpler physical language to explore the metaphysics of Macbeth's conscience. Climbing a metal grid that frames the video screen, Macbeth delivers the dagger speech in the projected shadow of a larger-than-life blade. The video dagger rotates while Macbeth hovers above the ground, verbally circling his bloody decision. Later in the play, Banquo's ghost attends Macbeth's banquet wearing only a cellophane smock and trailing a long red train. Banquo wraps the guests in this symbolic evidence of his murder as the tormented Scotsman goes apoplectic. The Guthrie's leaden production of Lear included no single moment so evocative.

Yet, occasionally McLean sinks to parading the mindless trademarks of designer nihilism--slinky black dresses, smack, dominatrix gear, slo-mo sodomy--in a stylistic shorthand devoid of any long-hand significance. Ultimately, one's take on this show might depend on whether one finds it amusing or appalling when a member of Mac(Daddy)Duff's posse says: I got somefin' fo' Macbeth's ass. Sure you do. CP

Pelléas and Mélisande runs through May 4 at the Ordway Music Theatre; call 224-4222 for SRO tickets. Macbeth runs through May 12 at the Loring Playhouse; call 332-1617.

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