In 1935, Artur Rodzinski led the Cleveland Orchestra and singers in a staged production of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a work which earned the composer a rebuke in his native Russia and which was condemned as “pornophony” by the New York Sun. Rodzinski’s performances were the American premiere of the opera, putting Cleveland and its orchestra on the cultural map – and marked not just the highlight of the 1934-1935 season, but of Rodzinski’s ten years in Cleveland. By the time Rodzinski’s tenure with the orchestra ended in 1943, the Cleveland Orchestra was firmly in place as one of the America’s Big Five orchestras – along with the Philadelphia Orchestra (considered by Rachmaninoff to be the world’s finest), the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, and Chicago Symphony.
Staging an opera - any opera - was a bold move on Rodzinski’s part. Severance Hall, undisputedly one of the world’s most beautiful concert halls, is also rather small. Its seating capacity is about 2,000 – against 2,804 at Carnegie Hall and 2,738 at David Geffen Hall. The stage extensions needed for an opera cut into the available seating. Fewer seats means fewer tickets sold, which means less money for what is inevitably an expensive production.
It has been said that art thrives on limitation. This has certainly proved true in Cleveland. In 2014, Franz Welser-Most led the orchestra and singers in a creatively staged production of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – the highlight of that season, which was so popular that it will be repeated next season. I am confident that the staged performances of Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande will be remembered as the primary event of the 2016-2017 season – the “point” that Rachmaninoff spoke of in music, from which everything builds up and recedes.
Pelléas and Mélisande is not an easy opera to love. It lacks the spectacle of Wagner’s Ring, the high-note arias of Verdi, the lasciviousness of Richard Strauss’ Salome, the bubbly delight of many of Mozart’s operas. It doesn’t even have a memorable “tune”. Instead, the action is largely subjective, the characters are internalized, the music largely relies on texture, sonority, and subtle patterns.
The staging for this production, by Yuval Sharon, was outstanding and challenging. The centerpiece, elevated above the main stage, was a large glass structure which made use of lighting effects, fog, CGI projections, electrochromic glass, along with performers to bring the visual aspects of the work to life. The singers were dressed in simple costumes and remained largely still, while the physical performers in the glass structure largely delineated the stage action – both physical and sub-textual. It was highly effective, but there were drawbacks. Between the orchestra, the singers, the glass box, and the supertitles, there were times when the action was hard to follow. I found it most effective to keep my eyes on the booth, while glancing at the supertitles, and ignoring the orchestra (after all, I see them quite often). I would even go so far as to say that the singers’ costumes were not necessary. In all, it was a remarkable performance where staging, singing, orchestral playing, and overall convention merged into a compelling whole.
I mentioned above that art thrives on limitations. That’s why I am perplexed that the powers-that-be at the orchestra have decided against staging Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at Severance next season. Tristan could be staged inexpensively, with the use of lights and projections to help set the mood, at far less cost than Vixen and Pelléas were.