Debussy al fresco
The Max Tanenbaum Courtyard Gardens
06/19/2014 - & June 21, 23, 25, 2014
Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
Miriam Khalil (Mélisande), Etienne Dupuis (Pelléas), Gregory Dahl (Golaud), Alain Coulombe (Arkel), Megan Latham (Geneviève), Andrea Núnez (Yniold)
Julien LeBlanc (music director and pianist)
Joel Ivany (director), Camellia Koo (set designer), Ming Wong (costume designer), Jason Hand (lighting designer)
E. Dupuis & M. Khalil (© Darryl Block)
Once again, Against the Grain Theatre, under the direction of Joel Ivany, has brought us a dramatically effective, shoestring-budget production in an unusual venue. The Max Tanenbaum Courtyard Garden is a tucked-away oasis in the centre of the city in behind the Canadian Opera Company’s production centre, a repurposed 19th century wool mill. An audience of just 100 is arranged along two sides of the central grassy performance area; this represented the watery milieu of Allemonde while the action occurred on a few stone paths and in the gazebo within its grove of ginkgo trees.
The one drawback is the relentless background hum of the city, although an outburst of sirens at the end of the hair-pulling scene was bizarrely apropos. The slowly darkening sky (luckily on a beautiful evening) provided a magical background. The resident birds contributed their music as if on cue.
One might have had trepidations about piano accompaniment (whether or not out-of-doors), but this worked effectively, performed by guest music director Julien LeBlanc. Claude Debussy’s 1895 piano version was used; this was the composer’s “first draft” (as it were) that was the basis for the orchestrated version premiered in 1902.
LeBlanc was also responsible for coaching the performers, all of whom proved to be well chosen for their roles. Miriam Khalil has a somewhat pre-Raphaelite look about her which is appropriate for the melancholic, evasive heroine of the piece. One can get impatient with Mélisande, but this close-up performance made one ponder the enigma without demanding a neat resolution.
Making both a local and role debut was Etienne Dupuis as Pelléas, and what an auspicious performance it was! His well-focused baritone has the required upward extension that allows him to express the full range of emotions. Gregory Dahl also excelled as the moody big brother; he had previously only sung the role in English; here, his French diction was exemplary.
Megan Latham did just fine as Geneviève as did Alain Coulombe as King Arkel, a role he has made one of his specialties (he was also given the Doctor’s few lines). Young Andrea Núñez made a heartfelt Yniold, a role that is tricky to pull off.
As in previous AtG productions (notably The Turn of the Screw in 2012, Joel Ivany has devised a staging where the performers ignore the audience while maintaining an ardent listening attitude toward one another. Ming Wong's restrained period costumes struck just the right note, as did Jason Hand's lighting. All in all, an intriguing way to spend a midsummer evening.