Review: Passionately Sung, “Pelléas et Mélisande” in Netia Jones’ Attractive, Introspective Production – Santa Fe Opera, July 28, 2023

The Santa Fe Opera, for the third time in its history (the first and second being 51 and 46 years ago) performed Debussy’s operatic masterpiece, “Pelléas et Mélisande”, in a new production created by British director Netia Jones.

Jones’ attractive production, incorporating an absorbing lighting design by Canadian designer D. M. Wood, explores the contemporary relevance of the Maurice Maeterlinck’s play from which the opera’s libretto is derived.

Jones incorporates into her production Maeterlinck’s dark forests, and water images of wells and seashore grottoes, evoking a hostile, natural world. Maeterlinck provides ample support for themes of humans alienated from one another in an unfriendly natural environment.

Jones’ direction and the singing and acting of Zachary Nelson (Golaud), Samantha Hankey (Melisande), Huw Montague Rendall (Pelléas) and Raymond Aceto (Arkel) result in a human drama as intense as “Pelléas”‘ contemporaneous Italian verismo operas.

Huw Montague Rendall’s Pelléas and Samantha Hankey’s Mélisande

The opera centers around each character’s relationship with Mélisande, whom the libretto makes clear has escaped from an abusive situation. To her misfortune, her would-be protector and soon-to-be-husband Golaud, emerges as obsessively and dangerously jealous.

[Below: Pelléas (Huw Montague Rendall, left) takes his first opportunity to get to know his half-brother’s wife, Mélisande (Samantha Hankey, right); edited image, based on a Curtis Young photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Massachusetts soprano Samantha Hankey portrayed the opera’s central role with a vocally resplendent, emotionally focused performance – Jones’ production occasionally incorporating images of Melisande drowning.

[Below: Samantha Hankey as Mélisande, early in her pregnancy; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Golaud’s half-brother Pelléas, who wants to leave to be with his dying friend Marcellus, is empathetic to the pregnant Mélisande’s unhappiness, and offers her his expressions of love in an emotional, rather than physical sense.

Rendall displayed a beautiful lyric baritone. In Jones’ conceptualization, Pelléas lacks the hyper-aggressiveness of his half-brother, and for most of his character’s interactions exudes an air of calmness that clearly comforts Mélisande.

Among Pelléas’ heartfelt scenes with Mélisande, one of the most memorable is his attraction to Mélisande’s flowing hair. Especially touching is the final scene in which both confess their love for each other. These scenes gave Rendall the opportunity to demonstrate his vocal expressiveness and dramatic power.

[Below: Huw Montague Rendall as Pelléas; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Interestingly, Rendall’s middle and last names honor his parents. Both were internationally recognized opera singers. I had admired his father David Rendall’s San Francisco Opera performances as Don Ottavio in 1978’s mounting of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Ernesto in 1980’s Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”. I also saw his mother, Diana Montague, in one performance in France [Review: Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” – A Burgundian-Themed Opera at the Opéra de Lyon, May 20, 2016].

Zachary Nelson’s Golaud and Raymond Aceto’s Arkel

The “action figure” in this performance was Zachary Nelson’s Golaud. Nelson’s highly charged performance displayed Golaud’s ever-increasing certainty that he was being cuckolded by his half-brother. In an opera where calmness and subtle behavior is the general rule, Nelson was effective in demonstrating Golaud’s emotional turmoil and descent into obsessive behaviors.

[Below: Zachary Nelson as Golaud; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

For the past decade I have enjoyed Zachary Nelson’s performances of such central repertory baritone roles as Almaviva [Review: Santa Fe Opera Reverentially Revives “Nozze di Figaro”, June 29, 2013], Enrico [Review: Brenda Rae’s Stunning Lucia di Lammermoor – Santa Fe Opera, July 1, 2017] and Marcello [Review: A Magnificent Mimi Leads a Youthful “Boheme” Cast – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2019], each of which showcased his attractive baritone. However, his performance as Golaud provided a demonstration of his dramatic power at a level of intensity that one does not expect of Almaviva, Enrico or Marcello.

I have been a long time observer of the opera performances of Raymond Aceto. As Arkel, the King of Allemonde, Aceto brought vocal gravitas to this large and important role. Aceto convincingly portrays a King who believes he is the ultimate arbiter of what goes on in both his household and his kingdom.

[Below: Raymond Aceto as Arkel; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Since 2006. I have commented on Aceto’s excellent performances in the operas of Wagner [Review: An American “Walküre” – Runnicles, Wagner and Zambello At San Francisco Opera, June 10, 2010], Verdi [Review: 21st Century Verdi – Hvorostovsky, Ciofi, Kim, Aceto in McVicar’s Illuminating “Rigoletto” – Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, October 11, 2010] and Puccini [Review: Echalaz, Jagde, Aceto Open Santa Fe Opera Season in Wonderfully Sung “Tosca” – June 29, 2012] as well as his wide-ranging repertory of other composers [Review: Racette, Aceto, Jovanovich in Brilliant New Production of “Susannah” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2014].

Susan Graham’s Geneviève, Kai Edgar’s Yniold and Other Cast Members

For the smaller role of Geneviève, the mother of both Golaud and Pelléas (by different fathers), the Santa Fe Opera enlisted the expressive voice and star power of New Mexico mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who performed the role’s expository dialogue with authority.

[Below: Susan Graham as Geneviève; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

One of the reigning mezzo-sopranos of our generation, audiences have reveled in her range of talents from high comedy [Review: Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013] to high drama [Review: Susan Graham, Hymel, Antonacci in a Magnificent “The Trojans” from Sir David McVicar – San Francisco Opera, June 7, 2015].

Illinois treble Kai Edgar sang the role of Golaud’s young son Yniold. That role is so challenging with such extensive French dialogue that it is usually performed by an adult mezzo-soprano instead of a young boy. Edgar proved he was fully prepared to perform the role, and did so impressively.

[Below: Kai Edgar as Yniold; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


It is noteworthy that Edgar is depriving mezzo-sopranos of two roles this season, by also taking on the role of the Shepherd Boy who sings in the last act of “Tosca” [Review: A Well-Sung “Tosca” Starring Leah Hawkins, Joshua Guerrero, Reginald Smith, Jr. and Blake Denson – Santa Fe Opera, June 30, 2023]. He is scheduled for 17 Santa Fe Opera performances between June 30 and August 26, 2023, 11 of “Tosca” and 6 of “Pelléas”.

Maestro Harry Bicket and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra

Presiding over Debussy’s sonorities was Maestro Harry Bicket, who led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in a affectionate reading of the score.

[.Below: Maestro Harry Bicket; edited image of a publicity photograph from Askonas Holt.]

Netia Jones’ Production and D. N. Wood’s Lighting Design

A premise of Jones’ new production was the alienation of human beings from one another and from their natural environment. Such themes are easily mined from Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbol-rich play on which the opera is based. Jones elaborate production is designed to convey these.

[Below: Director Netia Jones; edited image from]

One can ponder the meaning of Melisandre’s refusal to allow Golaud to fetch the golden crown that fell into the water, or revel in Debussy’s subtle music that creates an aural image of the oppressive forest that surrounds Arkel’s castle and its inhabitants.

[Below: Netia Jones’ unit set for “Pelléas et Mélisande”, edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

One of features of Jones’ production is the doubling of the characters of Golaud, Mélisande and Pelleas, so that, at key points in the action, parallel activities are taking place between the opera’s three principal singers and the actors who duplicate them.

[Below: Golaud (Zachary Nelson, second from right) wrestles with Mélisande (Samantha Hankey, right) as the actors playing their doubles wrestle at left; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photography, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

D. M. Wood collaborated with Jones to produce a preponderant image of dark green overgrown forests, that permeated both interior and exterior spaces.

[Below: Pelléas (Huw Montague Rendall (far left bottom corner) approaches a spiral staircase; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


I recommend the Santa Fe Opera cast and production of “Pelléas and Mélisande”, for both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.