The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra rules when it comes to mashing up live music with images. But this week, the orchestra takes on a more formidable challenge: performing Arnold Schoenberg’s symphonic tone poem Pelléas und Mélisande with visual accompaniment of projections and video created by innovative young director, production designer and visual artist James Darrah.
“This is nearly 40 minutes of continuous music, so it’s more like a cousin of Lumenocity,” says CSO Music Director Louis Langrée. He had not seen any of Darrah’s previous productions, but Langrée knew of his work with the San Francisco Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And there was another connection.
Last year, Darrah staged Don Giovanni for the Milwaukee Symphony, where Isaac Thompson, an alumnus of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, served on the artistic operations staff. In January, Thompson assumed the position of the CSO’s director of artistic operations. He arranged for Langrée and Darrah to meet, and in May the two artists sat down in Langrée’s East Walnut Hills home to discuss potential projects.
“It was one of the most welcoming and warmest receptions I’ve encountered,” Darrah says. “He was really interested in what I’m passionate about.”
Darrah did not want to do another opera. Not yet. “I wanted to craft something that only an orchestra can do,” he says. Langrée had raised the possibility of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, then suggested the Schoenberg poem, and sparks flew.
“Louis essentially said, ‘I want to do really cool things in Cincinnati; I love this piece.’ ” Darrah says. “And now I do, too.”
Pelléas et Mélisande is a Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck, first performed in 1893. The title characters fall in love, complicated by the fact that Mélisande is married to Pelléas’ half-brother, Golaud.
The play was dismissed by critics, but composers were inspired by the play’s symbolism. Gabriel Fauré wrote incidental music for the play’s revival in 1898, and in 1902, both Schoenberg and Debussy began larger works. Debussy’s opera would become the best known.
If you think Schoenberg means dissonance, think again. His Pelléas is richly melodic, with themes flitting throughout, hinting at characters and events. “This is the young Schoenberg, who wrote like Mahler,” Langrée says. “And perhaps the images can help to better understand the music.”
Darrah and his production company, Chromatic, produced a video with models and dancers that will be projected on a screen surrounding the orchestra. The screen itself will be comprised of hundreds of cord filaments to enhance the experience of literally moving pictures.
For Langrée, the great concern is that the visuals don’t become a distraction. “The images should act as a thread that evokes, not as something that imposes on the audience’s experience of the piece,” he says.
This weekend’s performances mark the beginning of a three-year project devoted to Pelléas et Mélisande in collaboration with Darrah. Next year, the play will be staged with Fauré’s music, and a semi-staged production of the opera follows in 2017.
Darrah looks forward to building his relationship with the CSO and especially with Langrée. “He’s really open to trying new things,” Darrah says. “The trilogy enables an exploration of multiple art forms that can enhance the audience’s experience. We felt there was something under the surface and we want to get to the heart of it.”
It’s clear that the Pelléas trilogy is more than a collaboration for Langrée. “I think James (Darrah) and I speak the same artistic language,” he says. “We believe that music is theatrical and that you have to start from the composer and not be redundant.”
For the maestro, Darrah’s images are another entryway for listeners to engage with powerful music, not a substitute for the score.
“The less you show, the more you can receive,” Darrah says. “What’s important is that everyone can use their own creativity to interpret these images.”
LOVE FORBIDDEN: LOUIS CONDUCTS THE PELLÉAS STORY
opens Friday and continues Saturday at MusicHall. More info: cincinnatisymphony.org.