Claude Debussy’s masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande lies outside opera’s standard repertory. Like so many other pieces beyond the fringe, it challenges our well learned expectations. Hence, at first exposure, most newcomers to the castle Allemonde are, most likely, sort of lost, as are, ironically, most of the characters in the opera. But as masterpieces go, Pelléas et Mélisande is an involving, deeply satisfying experience when one finds his or her way into its inner space, which can happen in a live performance, especially if it’s done right.
However, no easy task this: the opera is difficult to realize well on stage.* The Met’s current production by Sir Jonathan Miller, new in 1995, is certainly a step forward from the aimless, albeit colorful Paul-Emile Deiber setting of 1972, but even Miller’s Pelléas et Mélisande is only a hit, maybe a double, but not a homerun. John Conklin’s sets and Duane Schuler’s lighting design intelligently solve the transformation timing problems with a unit set of the mansion’s exterior and interior walls slowly rotating for scene changes in the center of the Met’s large stage. These walls are bordered by similar but stationary walls.** Often, though not always, this solution turns at the expense of a literal setting of a scene. Some are either a. scenically ambiguous as to where the characters are and what time of day or night it is or, within this, b. incorrectly lit, either just too bright or too bright and the wrong color lighting to boot.
Happily, from the musical standpoint, Pelléas et Mélisande is a winner this season, a home run with bases loaded. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conception of Debussy’s magical score brings out inner voices of the orchestra, highlighting threads of the music’s fabric that are often lost, but all this without losing the forward propulsion of the music. Similar, in fact, to the magic of his Parsifal last season. Subtle, sometimes very delicate shifts in mood are not lost, nor are the words of the text. Pelléas et Mélisande is Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, well, most of it, set to music. Often single lines carry tremendous weight. Unlike Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, who seem to go on about it for days, the lovers here are unoperatically succinct about how they feel: Pelléas: “Je t’aime.” Mélisande: “Je t’aime aussi.” There it is. Okay, maybe they talk about it a little more…
As it should be, the lovers are taken by attractive and relatively young artists. Isabel Leonard is an enigmatic Mélisande twice over: the character herself is so, but Leonard’s intonation and expression, possibly by direction, sometimes miss the mercurial mood changes Mélisande passes through, suddenly, even in split seconds.*** At other times Leonard, especially with Arkel and Geneviève, is spot on with interpersonal connection. It is worth noting that Mélisande is the center of the drama: everyone loves her, albeit in his or her own way.**** Leonard is always in rich voice.
Paul Appleby is a boyish Pelléas, a believable young man trying to understand the new emotions stirred by the young and beautiful but enigmatic wife of his down-to-earth older half-brother Golaud. Appleby endearingly captures Pelléas’s innocence, tenderness and his generally life-affirming outlook. Though his more tender expressions of care and affection are well within his range, Appleby’s light tenor voice seemed to encounter rough patches in the louder passages of Pelléas’s passionate seize-the-moment declaration of love to Mélisande in Act IV (as written).*****
Particularly outstanding this evening are baritone Kyle Ketelsen as Golaud and veteran basso Ferruccio Furlanetto. Golaud tries to resist the oppressive weight of the inevitable, call it fate, if you will, that seems to hang over castle Allemonde. He travels in a space defined by reason, purpose and custom, and, apart from a short fuse and a bad temper, he seems to be coping. But around him swirl those who seem to be stuck in the different logic (or lack of any) in Allemonde. At the end, after Pelléas’s murder by his hand and Mélisande’s subsequent silent passing, Arkel, le vieux roi d’Allemonde, advises Golaud, his grandson, to leave, simple as that, implying ‘you don’t belong here.’ Ketelsen brings out the raw emotions of a man caught in the vice of confusion in a meaningless world.
Furlanetto is genuinely and deeply touching as the aged King Arkel, both in voice and infirmity: his love and concern for Mélisande, his granddaughter-in-law, is uncomplicated, expressed in his extended monologue early in Act IV (as written) and in the final scene at Mélisande’s death bed (Act V as written). Bravo!!
Marie-Nicole Lemieux makes her Metropolitan Opera debut as Geneviève. Though not a long role, Geneviève sets stage for the welcome and embrace of Mélisande in the castle in Scene II and also for the support and love given to Yniold, Golaud’s adolescent son by his first wife in Scene III. Yniold is admirably and charmingly taken by boy soprano A. Jesse Schopflocher. He is always on cue, though at some points hard to hear. Jeremy Galyon is a Shepherd; Paul Corona is a Physician.
Debussy deeply admired Wagner’s Parsifal, particularly its score; unlike Parsifal, however, Pélleas et Mélisande covers far more dramatic and emotional ground in the course of the evening. Each scene is very much in the present, without a lot of backstory. In fact, one almost wishes the many questions raised in the opera had answers, as in ‘what does this dream mean?’ It is a unique operatic experience. Don’t miss it.
Photos by: Karen Almond.
Review performance: Tuesday, January 15, 2019, the first of the season, 115th performance by the Metropolitan Opera.
* Debussy’s score and the Maeterlinck’s text are very specific on matters of setting and mood. Moments such as a forest outside the castle walls at night where the act of emerging from the shadows into the moonlight is an admission of love or the first hints of love on a cliff at night as they overlook the sea, the sailing ships below negotiating the dense fog are so wonderfully painted by the music and described by the text. These are lost here, but, to be fair, they’re lost in most productions, even those available on DVD. The only production coming close to capturing it all on stage was the New York City Opera’s production (1974) with Patricia Brooks, Richard Stilwell, and Michael Devlin, conducted by Julius Rudel. Still searching for my program. Teresa Stratas, Frederica von Stade, and Anne Sofie von Otter were also wonderful Mélisandes at the Met. Perhaps every stage production of Pelléas et Mélisande will have to compromise on something...but not your imagination.
** All Acts, save Act V (as written), have at least two scenes changes; there is often precious little time musically to transform one scene to another. No six minute Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt to cover the scenic transformation from Brünnhilde’s Rock (Prologue of Götterdämmerung) to the Hall of the Gibichungs (Act I, Scene I), in other words.
*** To be fair, it must be tricky to portray on stage a character who seems disconnected in a manner that connects with the audience.
**** On reflection, Pélleas et Mélisande has all age groups represented, from the Mélisande’s newborn daughter in the final scene up, through Yniold to the young Pelléas and Mélisande, the older Golaud, mother Geneviève, ending the line with the ancient King Arkel. Their views on life, love, fate, and death are woven throughout the text, reflected in Debussy’s score. Also, since Mélisande must relate to all of them, either on stage or through the text, her interactions must show the relationship.
***** The role of Pelléas was written for a voice type the French call ‘baryton Martin,’ named after the early 19th century baritone Jean-Blaise Martin, whose voice bridged high baritone to mid-range tenor. The type is employed in operettas in the baritone parts, Offenbach, Sullivan, Strauss jr. etc.
Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, as written, is in five acts, but performed in three with two “lights up” intermissions. Acts I and II are combined, Act III is by itself, then Acts IV and V are combined. Within these are sometimes brief pauses, especially between the Acts as written. The running time of the complete performance is about four hours.
Pelléas et Mélisande appears on the Met stage again on the afternoon of January 19 and on the evenings of January 22, 25, and 31. Only these few performances. For ticket information or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or by visiting www.metopera.org/groups.
The Met’s matinee performance of Pelléas et Mélisande on January 19 will be radio broadcast or streamed via various media, specifically on Sirius XM and, locally, the New York metropolitan area, I mean, on WQXR 105.9 FM.
Enjoy! A lovely evening at the Met with one of my all-time favorite operas, easily top 100. It’s a beautiful work! And…need I say this: you never know when they will do it again. My last was 2005.
Happy trails. OM