OPERA

It seems to be a Long Beach Opera axiom that the more challenging the work at hand the more brilliant the results. The results this season bear this out: an indifferent stab at a couple of sure-fire romantic melodramas to start, and now a torrent of enlightened imagination applied to Debussy’s “Pelleas and Melisande.” The production had its premiere on Wednesday night; two performances remain.

“Pelleas” is an opera for the brave in heart, on both sides of the footlights. It invests Maeterlinck’s sad, symbolic tale with a musical tapestry woven out of shadows. On the other hand, the opera — both text and music — is so full of half-meanings and ambiguities that it can be made to work in either a literal or symbolic production. The Long Beach forces, marshalled by stage director Brian Kulick, designers Mark Wendland and Craig Pierce, and conductor Paul Connelly, have chosen the latter approach.

You know what’s in store almost immediately, as the lost Golaud walks onto a bare platform, facing a barren mound that looks like sand strewn with waste paper, and sings of being “lost in a forest.” The forest is in Debussy’s music, not on the stage and that, to the producers, is enough. They make us believe, as well.

Some of the symbolic gadgetry may, in truth, be a little excessive. Melisande has no long hair to let down from her tower, so her Pelleas must cope with a symbolic bolt of some shiny fabric. The child Yniold does his spying number, not through a window into Melisande’s room but down into a cut-away doll-house. It isn’t Golaud who gets to hurl Melisande around by her hair, but a black-clad surrogate, one of three silent stooges who function as stagehands and who, on occasion, clutter the production with a welter of gratuitous images.

Yes, there are moments when less might have been more. Overriding these passing flaws, however, is a consistent production philosophy under which Debussy’s subtle, supple operatic masterpiece fills in the cramped spaces of the Center Theater, throbs with its own life-force, and comes across as the kind of challenging, memorable entertainment that has marked this company’s best work through the past decade.

Musically, the forces are equal to the dramatic demands. Nobody could confuse the matronly Michal Shamir for the child-bride of Maeterlinck’s text. Yet, under Connelly’s expert pacing, she creates a Melisande out of whole fabric, and her final moments are truly moving. James Schwisow is a Pelleas ardent and haunted; Neil Howlett a marvelously fluent, menacing Golaud. But the authentic miracle here is the Arkel of Jerome Hines, 70 this year, 50 years out from his professional singing debut (which happened to be in Los Angeles). You have to have those figures in front of you, to underscore the unbelievability factor in the rolling, rock-solid eloquence of this performance.

Connelly’s pacing of the score was judicious and sympathetic; his orchestra, behind a scrim in back of the performance, contributed an appropriately shadowy visual background — and an unscheduled laugh as well when, at the end, the scrim was pulled away on the line “why are all these people here?” Oh yes, the opera was sung in English, a translation by Hugh MacDonald. Against all fears of violence to the strange, half-lit French of Maeterlinck’s text, the new words worked remarkably well. A memorable, spellbinding evening, then; go see for yourselves.

THE FACTS: What: Debussy’s “Pelleas and Melisande,” by the Long Beach Opera.

When: Tonight [*] FRIDAY [F/L] at 8, April 28 at 2.

Where: Center Theater, Long Beach Convention Center.

Behind the scenes: staged by Brian Kulick; conducted by Paul Connelly; designed by Mark Wentland and Craig Pierce.

Tickets: $22 to $55. Information: 213 596-5556.

Our rating: * * * *