Drama, lush music and visual effects -- new CSO production has all of the above

Posted at 2:18 PM, Sep 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-30 14:36:48-04

CINCINNATI -- We’ve all heard the adage: some things are better left unsaid.

However, what happens when you explore what has been left unsaid, set it to music, then add actors, a chorus and visual effects? In the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s case, the result is “The Pelléas Trilogy, Part II: Water,” a new concert experience coming to the Taft Theatre on Friday and Saturday. 


The story

“Pelléas et Mélisande” is an 1893 Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck, telling the forbidden love story of Mélisande and her royal husband’s brother, Pelléas. The husband discovers the illicit affair and kills Pelléas. Mélisande dies shortly thereafter in childbirth -- it’s heavy stuff.

The rich inherent drama of the plot, coupled with sometimes-sparse dialogue and lush symbolism (smoke, water and stone appear often), consequently inspired numerous artistic reactions and many musical interpretations.

“Symbolist artists sought to represent truth through metaphor and symbolic meaning,” said Louis Langrée, the CSO’s music director and conductor.

Langrée endeavored to bring some of those representations to life with an exciting concept. His idea: Explore musical reactions to this seminal Symbolist story, using the power of the orchestra, and flesh out those reactions in a decidedly 21st-century way, with visuals and technology, over a period of three years. This mission would be the ultimate achievement of the Symbolists’ original dream of finding truth through interpretation.

The design

Stephen Wadsworth. (Provided photo)

Enter a powerhouse team of creatives.

Renowned opera director and Leonard Bernstein collaborator Stephen Wadsworth was commissioned to adapt and translate “Pelléas et Mélisande” for an orchestra. Acclaimed Los Angeles-based director and multimedia designer James Darrah -- recently heralded by The New York Times for his work on brand-new opera “Breaking Waves” -- staged the affair, literally. 

Blake Berris (Provided photo)

Darrah brought in actor Blake Berris (“Days of Our Lives” and “Breaking Bad”) to portray the doomed Pelléas and operatic actress Naomi O’Connell as ill-fated Mélisande. The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Chorus makes an appearance, too.

It’s a production rich with collaborations that play off this year’s theme of water. Remember the symbols pointed out earlier? Each of the three “Pelléas” productions center on a different theme. Last year, smoke was the unifying thematic element, symbolizing Mélisande’s inescapable fate. This year, water is the star -- washing away the blood of past generations and, also, as a cleansing, powerful, turbulent agent. 

“[Projection designer] Adam Larsen has developed watercolor and ink imagery that will be projected behind the orchestra,” said Meghan Berneking, the CSO’s director of communications. Visuals swirl while Berris and O’Connell embody the star-crossed lovers, with dialogue from the play combining with the music for a heady, multisensory experience.

The CSO's teaser trailer introduces the mystical-looking Pelléas and Mélisande, making eyes at each other near an empty pool; it’s a modern, Surrealist envisioning of the time and place the characters inhabit, with the waterfall at the end of the clip symbolizing, perhaps, the rush of drama to come.

No words are spoken. It’s a tantalizing visual bite that doesn’t tell us much -- that’s for the music and performances to flesh out.

The performance

Music is at the center of “The Pelléas Trilogy.” The CSO will perform three compositions inspired by the tragic love story, one for each year of the arc. This year, it’s the incidental music of Gabriel Faure’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” along with two pieces by Debussy, whose own musical interpretation of the “Pelléas” story rounds out next year's final episode. Incidental is essentially like the music used as the score in a movie; here, though, it’s the music for a play. However, instead of the full play, only a few enactments and tableaus are portrayed.

“In this performance, it will certainly be more than background music, though the staged elements will correspond,” said Berneking. “The focus is very much on the musicality of it all, and in a way, the actors become musicians in the way that they engage with the music.”

The actors, musicians and artists involved aren’t the only ones who’ll be interpreting; the audience will, too.

“This performance will force them to reimagine what a concert ‘should’ be,” said Berneking.

It’s fitting that Friday’s concert is also billed as a “Friday Orange” performance. The CSO is rethinking the traditional concert-going experience with Friday Orange, a new concept that capitalizes on the urban vibe at the Taft Theatre through a mix of unique pre- and post-concert enhancements. The first Friday Orange featured hip-hop group the Millennium Robots. This event will feature dancers in the lobby, an echo of the symbolic dance played out on stage during the concert.

“In the end, all CSO concerts are a collective experience,” said Berneking. “While each person brings his or her own ideas and experiences to the table, at the end, it’s a dialogue with the audience, the musicians, the conductor, the artists, the actors, etc.”

'The Pelléas Trilogy, Part II: Water'

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth St.

Tickets start at $12.