Weekend MusicWatch: French twists

Jena Viemeister, Matthew Hayward and flutist Celine Thackston on stage in You're Still As Beautiful

This has been a season of scaled down ambitions for Opera Theater Oregon. The plucky alt.classical company helped revitalize Portland’s classical music scene with its innovative and informal productions that presented classic operas in clubs and classic movie theaters, with new arrangements for much reduced (read: less costly) instrumental forces, a non-stuffy, welcoming atmosphere with beer and food available, and cheeky productions that paired, for instance, a Wagner opera with a Baywatch theme — and made it all work, thanks to their dedication to the music’s integrity and attention to younger audiences’ preferences.

But opera, even on a smaller scale, is an expensive proposition, and this year the company — ensconced in its new home at McMenamin’s Mission Theater in Northwest Portland — has focused on combining music and film, engaging one or a few musicians to improvise on music from an opera to create a new soundtrack to an old film. The new approach — recession opera? — avoided elaborate and expensive sets, costumes and musical forces, but left me eager to see more of the company’s ambitious side.

The ambition is back this weekend and next with OTO’s haunting new production of Claude Debussy’s only opera, Pelleas and Melisande. The 1902 setting of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play contains some of the great French composer’s most beguiling music, but it’s so deliberately anti dramatic (the characters are archetypes, and “the ideal would be two associated dreams,” the composer wrote) both musically and narratively, that the full opera can be a long ride, with its continuous “endless melody” and a kind of speech singing that sometimes chatters on. It can be very much like drifting asleep into and out of a dream that’s just out of reach.

OTO’s tight, inventive 90-minute production, called called You’re Still as Beautiful, makes one crucial addition and jettisons all the minor characters and much of the plot, leaving only the three main characters in a love triangle (a controlling prince, his young wife, and his young half brother) and the major dramatic turning points. And it frames this sketchy mythic tale with interpolated excerpts (which appear on a big screen above the stage, usually while the characters exit) from the famous 1961 French new wave film Last Year at Marienbad, from which it draws its setting, atmosphere (weirdly similar to Pelleas’s anyway), prop and costume ideas and even physical gestures. The set and blocking ingeniously match the film action, so that the audience seems to be slipping in and out of a mid-century European resort hotel — “an edifice of a bygone era,” the film tells us — from the gardens outside — like a dream within a dream.

Set and lighting designers Brian Melton and Peter West masterfully evoke the twilit world of the myth, the opera and the film, particularly in the ravishing balcony scene that’s the highlight of this taut production. Director Clara Weishahn stylized gestures both draw on the film’s movement vocabulary and reinforce the sense of myth — the characters move and pose like figures on a frieze, Greek vase, medieval print; pick your medium. However,  you don’t need to have seen the film to appreciate its echoes of the opera’s story, mood and themes. (You don’t have to speak French, either — the screen shows supertitles.) The pairing makes a satisfying whole.

To make room for the film frame, though, Weishahn and music director Erica Melton have omitted many major moments, maybe a couple of scenes too many for the story to entirely hold together, although the concision thereby achieved compensates. Regrettably, this deprives us of more opportunities to see Benjamin Bell as Golaud, the story’s most interesting character and a compelling baritone singer and stage presence. Many of the omitted scenes featured Golaud, and show more clearly why Melisande both loves him and wants to escape. He’s more than the simple plot device, the third leg of a triangle, presented here.

The other two singers also represent a triumph of casting, so important in three-person show. Jena Viemeister fully embodies Melisande’s elusiveness (“I am happy,” she says. “But I am sad.” Yep.) Weishahn has her play mostly to the audience and clouds, not the other two earthbound characters. Matthew Hayward energizes the show as a more ardent and human Pelleas, particularly in the love scenes when the music escapes its symbolist miasma and conveys real passion. All three sing beautifully and appropriately for the Mission’s intimate space, ideal for this story’s setting.

A greater omission is Debussy’s gauzy orchestral textures, which perfectly match his shadowy Impressionist music and contribute to the opera’s diaphanous atmosphere. Melton’s characteristically astute reduction uses the quintessentially Debussian combination of flute, viola and harp (for which he later wrote a magnificent sonata that became a template for others using the same forces) along with her piano (for which he created the loveliest music ever written for that instrument, his Preludes). It’s gorgeous, played well, and works well with both the stage action and well chosen silent scenes from the film. But the combo can’t quite envelop us the way the original orchestration does.

But as a whole, this unlikely combination of film, myth and music is one of the season’s stage triumphs. It’s a dream you won’t want to end.

You’re Still as Beautiful continues Friday, June 1, and next weekend, June 8 and 9 at the Mission Theater.

Les Green, Joseph Michael Muir, and
Brian Tierney rehearse Resonance
Ensemble's French program

There’s more French music onstage on Saturday at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel and Sunday at Vancouver’s First Methodist Church, when the superb singers of the Resonance Ensemble perform another 20th century masterpiece: Francis Poulenc’s  powerful World War II choral cantata Figure Humaine, composed during the Nazi occupation of Paris. They’ll also sing Leonard Bernstein’s music to Lillian Hellman’s play about Joan of Arc, The Lark — which Bernstein later transformed into the little mass setting Portland Symphonic Choir sang last month. He wrote the incidental music around the same time he and Hellman were devising their opera based on another French classic, Voltaire’s Candide, which Portland Opera staged last month. The program, led by guest conductor and Portland choral legend Bruce Browne, boasts all manner of rarely heard gems, including 20th century French-Swiss composer Frank Martin’s music for The Tempest, Renaissance works, a Haitian number (whose language is a French creole) and more. But the best news, as we first reported on OAW’s Facebook page last month, is that the concert will feature the return of singer Brian Tierney, nearly recovered from last month’s unexplained near fatal shooting.

Still more French music fills the atrium of the University of Oregon’s Willamette Hall Saturday night when UO music students directed by the great French early music singer, Anne Azema (who’s been in residence at the university this term), perform a musical setting of a medieval French text, Le Tournoi de Chauvency, that recounts a week of courtly festivities, eroticism, romance, chivalry and more. UO early music prof Eric Mentzel (a superb tenor who’s won acclaim for his music with many of the major early music groups, most notably Sequentia) and Bay Area vielle (a lovely medieval stringed instrument) virtuosa and harpist Shira Kammen (Azema’s frequent musical partner) perform as well.

Another collegiate choice: On Friday night and Sunday afternoon at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, Portland State University’s superb choirs, invigorated under the dynamic leadership of Prof. Ethan Sperry, a world music specialist , will sing music from India (with guest Indian percussionists) Haiti, the American South, and more. These shows are generally much more animated than your typical choral concert. Dancing and percussion will likely break out. You have been warned.

Speaking of global sounds, while the musicians of Portland’s Third Angle New Music Ensemble play American and Chinese music in Beijing, PSU piano prof Susan Chan plays music of composers of Chinese heritage (including Pulitzer winner Zhou Long and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon composer Tan Dun) on Sunday afternoon at the university’s Lincoln Hall. Also on Sunday, cello fans might check the final show in First Presbyterian Church’s fine Celebration Works series at 2 pm, featuring the Amedei Cello Ensemble, who’ll play tunes by the Beatles, some classical music, Latin dances, and more. Violaholics will no doubt converge upon Portland’s Old Church, along with a score of top Portland classical players and the Oregon Viola Society, to perform 20th century works for viola and other instruments (cello, percussion, clarinet, etc.). Unleash the viola jokes at your own risk.

4 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    viola jokes? oh yeah, mamita, let’s do it!

    Q. how do you get a violist out of a tree?
    A. cut the rope.

    next . . .

  2. Jeff Winslow says:

    I am a certified Debussy fanatic, and count me in as a fan of OTO’s take on Pelleas! I agree with you, Brett, on most points, especially that the tower scene was the, er, high point of the production. (I was sitting in the balcony myself.) And the arrangement was indeed as sensitively done as could be expected with the piano standing in for so much of the orchestra. With a Nebraska Bitter and a plate of nachos in front of you, you can’t beat it.

  3. Q. What’s the difference between a viola and a trampoline?
    A. You don’t have to take your shoes off to jump on a viola.

  4. Q. What’s the difference between a coffin and a viola?
    A. With a coffin, the dead person’s on the inside of the box.

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