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Magdalena Koženà as Mélisande and Stéphane Degout as  Pelléas [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
31 Dec 2010

Pelléas et Mélisande, New York

Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s impressionist drama closely based on Maeterlinck’s eerie, symbolist play, is not a terribly vocal opera; it calls more for the subtlety of art song style than the belting of great divas and divos.

Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

Mélisande: Magdalena Koženà; Geneviève: Felicity Palmer; Pelléas: Stéphane Degout; Golaud: Gerald Finley; Yniold: Neel Ram Nagarajan; Arkel: Willard White. Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Simon Rattle. Performance of December 20.

Above: Magdalena Koženà as Mélisande and Stéphane Degout as Pelléas

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera


Therefore it makes me a bit uneasy to report that the latest Met revival features the best all-around cast the company has fielded (theatered?) all season, nearly flawless from top to bottom, no one vocally out of her or his league, everyone suited to the scale of the work and to singing it at the Met—at least when Simon Rattle is in the pit, keeping the evening in flawless balance.

PELLEAS_Finley_Kozena_White_7077c.pngMagdalena Kožená as Mélisande, Gerald Finley as Golaud and Willard White as Arkel

Jonathan Miller’s production removes Maeterlinck’s tragedy from the mystical, pre-Raphaelite mists in which the playwright set it to a definite location: an English country house in the Merchant-Ivory style. Miller’s feeling seems to be that we have forgotten the once-upon-a kingdoms of fairy tale, that we nowadays have similar half-sensual half- memories related to the forgotten refinements and restraints of the turn of the century world. This does not always fail of its proper effect, though killing with broadswords seems a little strange. I do not quite understand why Mélisande, first discovered in a Jungian wood far from the rest of the action, weeping into a forest pool, is already within the walls of the house. Surely her tragedy, in part, is that she begins and remains an outsider? For Miller, evidently, “Allemond,” the name of Arkel’s kingdom, is truly all-the-world, and just as there is no place to flee, there is no outside for Mélisande to have come from.

The singers, an extraordinary ensemble, perform with sensitivity and grace. Every sound they make is musically grateful and lulls one into the texture of Debussy’s tone poem. Stéphane Degout’s ardent Pelléas is nicely contrasted with Gerald Finley’s agonized and menacing Golaud. Willard White and Felicity Palmer give moving performances as the helpless elders Arkel and Geneviève. Neel Ram Narajan’s boy soprano reaches all the notes with perfect support and has no trouble filling the house. He is often called upon to “witness” the actions of the incomprehensible adults, and he acts bravely. (In one clever Miller touch, Yniold’s scene with the Shepherd becomes a nightmare, sing in bed.)

PELLEAS_Kozena_and_Degout_0804a.pngMagdalena Koženà as Mélisande and Stéphane Degout as Pelléas

The one member of the cast who did not seem quite acclimatized with the rest, perhaps appropriately, was Lady Rattle, Magdalena Koženà, who sang Mélisande, that quintessential outsider. It was easy to put her accented French down to the character’s foreignness; this did not bother me at all. More awkward was her air of conscious coquetry, of flirting with Pélleas, of manipulating those about her. This is not appropriate to Mélisande whose innocence is precisely the keynote of her character. Koženà stares, as required, at the actions of others, but her stare does not seem to imply wonder or puzzle; simply a languid lack of interest. Innocence is a commodity that Maeterlinck’s admirers longed for, missing their pre-Freudian, pre-Darwinian youth perhaps; if we can no longer believe in it, we still must have a Mélisande who incarnates it to perform the opera properly.

The hero of the evening, shining despite the brilliance of so extraordinary a group of singers, was conductor Sir Simon Rattle in his Met debut. His Pelléas et Mélisande was of so measured a pace that the moments of rising tension, imminent violence, came upon us with an almost shocking suddenness and, as the stage action remained calm, tied us more closely to the internal states that the score tends to paint in any case. His sureness and lightness of touch permitted the singers to project conversationally without any strain or push. He brought us to our feet.

John Yohalem

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