David Bartholomew, immediate past artistic director of Opera Southwest, has waited a long time to stage direct Claude Debussy’s only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.

“I am happy to come out of retirement to do this piece,” he said. “It was the opera that really hooked me on directing opera. The enigma known as Mélisande has fascinated me all these years.”

The origins of the character Mélisande are indeed mysterious. In the opera, she is a beautiful woman discovered by Prince Golaud, who marries her despite knowing nothing about her. She and Golaud’s brother, Pelléas, then begin a friendship that turns to love. The original play by Maurice Maeterlinck is a prime example of French Symbolist literature, in which the ideal is elevated above the mundane. Fate and its exigencies are the story motif.

“The vision we do achieve is going to be wonderful,” said Bartholomew. “[The opera] will be a gift to the people who love it as I do, specifically Maestro Barrese.”

OSW’s Artistic Director Anthony Barrese wrote an orchestral reduction of Pelléas et Mélisande for Bartholomew more than a dozen years ago. It is that version that OSW is producing. Orchestral authentication and reduction is Maestro Barrese’s niche. After more than 10 years of research and re-composing, he wrote a reduced orchestral version of Franco Faucio’s Amleto (Hamlet) and Opera Southwest produced its New World debut in Albuquerque in 2014.

For Pelléas et Mélisande, Bartholomew and Barrese worked together to wed the interpretation of the story with the music. “The version Debussy first wrote used short interludes,” said Bartholomew. “But the stagers back then (1902) said, ‘That’s not long enough to change the scenery,’ so Debussy went back and wrote longer interludes. Barrese returned to the shorter interludes. There is concise movement from scene to scene, no overture, no waiting except for dramatic purposes.”

The stage set is also minimal, yet lushly rendered, in the characteristic style of Designer Cary Wong. Wong designed the set for OSW’s 40th season performances of Madame Butterfly in 2013. In that production, Butterfly’s house was imagined as a cricket cage.

“There is minimal scenery [in Pelléas et Mélisande]. There is a big, oval arch reflected upstage on which projections are made,” Bartholomew said. “There’s a fountain and a garden, representing water and air. There’s a floating feeling.”

OSW has carefully built its reputation as a conduit for young singers who want to go places. For instance, a young Black tenor, Roderick Dixon, had his chance to sing the title role in Rossini’s Otello much earlier in his career than he normally would have. The tenor who sang the role of Amleto, Alex Richardson, now sings at the Metropolitan Opera. Suffice it to say that OSW’s young singers are superlative.

Efraín Solís, a baritone, is Golaud. Solís has appeared on the NHCC stage many times for OSW, recently as El Payador in Piazzola’s Maria de Buenos Aires in 2019, and has been lauded in reviews of his acting. Mezzo soprano Andrea Hill sings Mélisande and tenor John Viscardi sings Pelléas.

“Mélisande is out of this world, Pelléas is so young and exuberant,” said Bartholomew. “It’s their opera.”

Opera Southwest, Pelléas et Mélisande , at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Three performances only: March 20 at 2pm; March 25 at 7:30pm; March 27 at 2pm. Tickets: operasouthwest.org

All photos by Lance W. Ozier/TodosJuntosPhotography.com