SEATTLE -- A breathtaking set designed by world reknowned glass artist Dale Chihuly has helped Seattle Opera stage another world-class production with last Saturday's opening of 'Pelleas and Melisande.'
Organizers are breathless with optimism, hoping they have created another 'War and Peace' or 'Der Ring Des Niebelungen' that put Seattle Opera on the map during the last decade.
The new production of Claude Debussy's 1902 impressionistic classic marks one of the few times opera sets have been based on fine art and is probably the first derived from glass. It also is a new outlet for Chihuly, recently named America's first National Living Treasure by the University of North Carolina.
Works of the Tacoma, Wash., native are part of over 100 museum collections. He has presented exhibitions from the Louvre to the Seattle Art Museum and has permanent installations from the Rockefellar Center to a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. But before 'Pelleas,' he had never worked in the medium of theater.
'I'm very excited about the opportunity to make things to such a large scale and to so many people simultaneously and with such great resources,' he said, paying tribute to the opera's respected production team.
Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins said Chihuly's name came up two years ago when the organization was discussing ways to do something original and masterful for 'Pelleas and Melisande.'
'It immediately flashed through my mind that nothing in the world would be better in terms of the impressionistic feeling of Pelleas than glass. The glimmer of glass is like the glimmer of impressionistic music,' said Jenkins, describing Chihuly's works as 'ranging from ethereal to flamboyant, from delicate to massive.'
Even Chihuly fans will likely be fooled by the set in that none of the monumental pieces that dazzle the eye and add a shimmering mystery to the drama are actually made of glass, nor were they produced by Chihuly himself.
Rather, the artist first made drawings then produced miniature models, built to half-inch scale inside a 25'x18'x19' black box. From there, the opera production department transformed them into mammoth creations that dominate the scenes, usually with no other props, on a stage set inside a giant black Plexiglas box acting as a mirror on all sides.
'Being able to take a glass piece and convert it into huge things for the stage that look like glass was a total challenge,' Jenkins said, 'and not only one -- we have 12 scenes!'
Finding the right polymers and other plastics, metals and paints to be able to create those pieces without taking away from Chihuly's visions -- not to mention making them easily moveable during short scene changes -- was the daunting task of Technical Director Bob Schaub.
'The challenge was to capture the essense of a fine artist,' Schaub said. 'We've not asked Dale to compromise one bit. It doesn't get more challenging than this and it doesn't get more beautiful.'
Chihuly said the story line, more than the music, gave him the inspiration to produce the models for each of the scenes.
'I could play the music and the music could be inspiring, but I think it's a little easier for an artist to connect to a thought,' he said.
Chihuly said he would pick one thought or theme -- a broken heart, Melisande's long golden hair, the well -- and run with it 'from the gut, ' creating an abstract vision of whatever he felt was the most important aspect.
His brilliant pieces, lit flawlessly by Director Neil Peter Jampolis, work well with the opera's theme of light, for which Pelleas and his brother's wife, Melisande, constantly yearn as their forbidden love tries to blossom amidts the gloom of the castle and the Allemonde family, in which members talk but rarely hear one another.
'It's a very dysfunctional family. They have a lot of problems,' Jenkins said. 'Unfortunately there's a lot in 'Pelleas' that you see in daily life. This is true of any masterpiece.'
The family is headed by the blind and dying King Arkel, his husbandless daughter-in-law Genevieve and his grandsons Pelleas, whose father is dying, and Golaud, who has lost both his father and his first wife.
In the beginning, the domineering Golaud finds the haunted and vulnerable Melisande lost in the forest, marries her and brings her into the family. But it is Pelleas that she falls in love with and instead of bringing joy to the castle, intrigue, jealousy and ultimately more death and tragedy are in store.
One of the things that makes 'Pelleas and Melisande' so unusual is that Debussy took the story from the play by Maurice Maeterlinck and, rather than embellish it with hours of arias, simply set the script to music. The result is an unusually realistic exchange of dialogue in lyrical expression, rather than long-winded arias surrounding short bits of plot and emotion.
While this historically has led to disenchantment among some of the regular opera-going crowd, the addition of Chihuly's work in Seattle has led to sold-out performances, with a fourth of the audience not regular subscribers.
Jenkins said the popularity also may be due to the enduring quality of Pelleas as a relevant comment on human nature.
'If it's a masterpiece, you're going to relate to this in some way you haven't expected and you're going to relate different in '93 than you would have in '83 or '73. That's what makes the thing last,' Jenkins said. 'Ten or 12 years ago, the wife abuse of Melisande would have meant a lot less than it means today. Now it strikes you and hits home.'
When initial publicity came out about the series, few imagined the sets -- which most presumed would be made of glass -- could ever go on the road. But as the opening approached the word got out about its portability and during final rehersals several prominent opera officials, including one from San Francisco, were in observance.
Chihuly hopes to do more operas.
'If they like it, I will. It's basically a commissioned piece -- you have to get a consensus on it. But I'm very interested in public art.'
Beyond Chihuly and the set, Jenkins said he went out of his way to pick not only good singers, but because of the demands of 'Pelleas,' he had to get great actors as well as people 'who look right.' Pulling the entire production together is conductor Gerard Schwarz in his first crack at 'Pelleas.'
'The most important thing in all this is what the conductor does,' said Jenkins, 'because the most memorable music part of the opera exists in the orchestra -- that's where the emotions of the characters are...the real weight of the beauty of the work.'
Melisande is played by Sheri Greenawald, Pelleas by Malcolm Walker, Golaud by Michael Devlin, Arkel by Kenneth Cox, Genevieve by Sheila Nadler, Yniold by Nikolas Sean-Paul Nackley, and the Physician by Archie Drake.