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Subtlety Made Sublime

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
12/17/2010 -  & December 20, 23, 29, 2010, January 1*, 2011
Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
Stéphane Degout (Pelléas), Magdalena Kozená (Mélisande), Gerald Finley (Golaud), Felicity Palmer (Geneviève), Willard White (Arkel), Neel Ram Nagarajan (Yniold), Paul Corona (Doctor), Donovan Singletary (Shepherd)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Simon Rattle (Conductor)
Jonathan Miller (Production), John Conklin (Set Designer), Clare Mitchell (Costume Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer), Paula Williams (Stage Director)

M. Kozena and G. Finley (© Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera)

Once again, for the third season in a row, a principal cause of excited anticipation followed by thrillingly revelatory musical performances has been the debut of a conductor who, by all rights, should have appeared at the Met many years ago. In November, 2008, there was (Daniel Barenboim). Riccardo Muti arrived in February, 2010.

The most recent representative of this group of conductor luminaries is Sir Simon Rattle, the 55 year old Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Berlin Philharmonic. When asked what work he would most like to conduct for his Met debut he chose Pelléas et Mélisande. Rattle has said that his main requirement for appearing at the Met was adequate time to work with the orchestra. He was granted the time and the result was nothing short of magnificent. This marvelous ensemble, honed with such loving care by James Levine, played for Sir Simon as if they were one enormous musical instrument. And they played gloriously for him. This was a gripping and enthralling performance. And it was not only the audience who were enthralled. After almost four hours of intense music making, the musicians remained in the pit to applaud him.

Debussy was a master of the creation of mood through harmonic shifts and the repetition of often haunting musical motifs. Rattle’s Pelléas was often breathtakingly luminous and always sensuously beautiful. But it was also filled with dramatic tension. The story is full of mystery and metaphor and both are embodied in the orchestral tapestry with its variegated colors, particularly the shifts between light and darkness. This was a richly detailed performance. Yet there was always a sense of an organic whole – a sort of dreamscape.

There is a pervasive unreality about the story and the characters. Arkel’s kingdom is called Allemonde; it’s the whole world and yet strangely not of this world. Mélisande is a wild creature of mysterious origins and motivations. Pelléas is also not a character with whom we can identify or even understand. Golaud’s feelings and motivations are at least comprehensible, although he is a rather flat character. He is almost a caricature of the dark side of love – its needy, possessive and destructive aspects. He is both tormented and tormenting.

Usually, of course, the romantic lead is a tenor. Here, we had two baritones -- the marvelously lyrical and warm-toned Stéphane Degout and the darker and more dramatic Gerald Finley. Vocally and dramatically, they were the light and dark faces of love. Indeed, because they were dressed almost identically throughout, they were portrayed as doppelganger figures.

Finley’s performance was a tour de force. He sang with a burnished beautifully colored voice, filled with emotion. And he made masterful use of his rich vocal palette to portray his character. Even his posture – particularly when he seemed to collapse into himself – perfectly reflected the emotional state of Golaud. Finley utterly inhabited this role as he lurched from towering, murderous rage to deep despair. In three key scenes – his forcing his young son to spy on Pelléas and Mélisande in her bedroom, his murder of Pelléas and the death of Mélisande – he was mesmerizing. Amid the horror and the urge to look away, it was impossible to take our eyes off him.

Although, throughout the opera, the voices were embedded in the musical tapestry, there were times when the orchestral music fell away to reveal the voice eloquent and alone. In Mélisande’s “Mes longs cheveux,” Magdalena Kozená (Lady Rattle) conveyed through her voice and her willowy physical presence the ethereal, other-worldly character of Mélisande. Her tone was rich and shimmering. Her legato was marvelous. She beautifully captured the primal, disconnected, and psychologically precarious Mélisande.

The rest of the cast was also excellent. Dame Felicity Palmer (recognized this year in Queen Elizabeth’s New Year’s Honours List), sang with a rich, vibrant, gorgeously colored voice that was steady and even. She gave a touching portrayal of the mother trying to hold her family together. Veteran bass-baritone Sir Willard White produced a wonderfully rolling deep bass sound, with excellent legato. His monologue was a highlight of a performance filled with highlights. Neel Ram Nagarajan sang with a sure sweet soprano that projected well into the vastness of the Met auditorium. His acting was a match for his voice, and he was heartbreakingly convincing as a confused and abandoned child caught up in his father’s descent into madness.

Jonathan Miller’s spare shabby production, which premiered at the Met in 1995, was subtly effective, with the vast scale of the run-down palace that dominated all the scenes serving to heighten the mounting sense of oppression and the vulnerability of the characters. The royal family lived, almost huddled, in small spaces surrounded by soaring emptiness. A revolve was used to enable a seamless transition between scenes, and the seeming constant rearrangement of the same walls to create spaces that were different, yet the same, made the characters appear trapped within those walls. Indeed, even when they escaped outside, be it to garden, seaside cave, or forest, those same walls followed, as inescapable as Golaud’s tormenting doubts and inner demons. The production at times seemed more a representation of an inner mindscape than of an actual physical setting. The evocative and mostly dim green lighting heightened the suffocating atmosphere and psychological tensions. Pelléas seemed to bring the only bright light with him, carrying about a golden glow that pushed back the prevailing gloom, but ultimately could not conquer it.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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