Rattle, fine cast bring out the drama and mystery of Met’s “Pelleas and Melisande”

December 19, 2010
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Magdalena Kožená and Stéphane Degout in the Metropolitan Opera's "Pelleas et Melisande." Photo: Ken Howard

Sitting through Pelleas et Melisande can be a frustrating experience. Enigmatic and elliptical, Debussy’s opera about a young girl of mysterious origin who marries a prince and then falls in love with his half brother is full of unanswered questions. Facts, like fully formed melodies, are hard to come by, eluding the viewer’s grasp like fleeting shadows. How child-like is Melisande really? What are her feelings toward Golaud, her husband? Does she actually commit adultery with Pelleas? Whatever fleeting clues Debussy provides are embedded in the orchestral score so that it is up to the conductor, more than any protagonist on stage, to give the drama direction.

In the current revival of Jonathan Miller’s elegant production that job falls to Sir Simon Rattle, who made his overdue Met debut on Friday with an intense and passionate reading of this underrated masterpiece. Under his baton the Met players sounded glorious, digging deep into the luscious orchestral interludes and offering a dazzling palette of tone colors. Dressed in his black collarless jacket, Rattle worked like a lighting technician from the pit, illuminating the conflicting emotions of the characters. Thus Golaud, questioning Yniold, his son from a previous marriage, about Melisande’s relationship to Pelleas, came alive not only as the jealousy-tormented husband, but also as a fumbling father, the rhythmically plodding orchestra underlining his awkward attempts to find a way to speak to his child.

Melisande, sung with exquisite pathos by Magdalena Kožená remains an enigma, all the more so because along with her melancholy and fearfulness there are flashes of a more calculating woman at work. In the scene by the side of the well, in which she teases Pelleas by dipping her long hair into the water and tossing her wedding ring high in the air, the orchestra acts like a third character, its gurgling, watery music drawing her in just as she seduces her brother-in-law arching herself backwards over the edge of the well. That her anguish at seeing Golaud’s ring disappear in the water seems nevertheless real is again the work of the orchestra, which crests in a moment of Mahlerian intensity. Later, after Golaud has humiliated her in a fit of jealous rage, there is another hint at a kind of pain that is not due merely to guilt: if she were merely indifferent to her husband, Melisande would not be nearly as tormented.

The part of Pelleas can be sung either by a tenor or a baritone. In this cast it was Stéphane Degout who played brother to Gerald Finley’s Golaud, pitting two very different baritones against each other. Degout has the silken sound and fluid phrasing of the French school; Finley a much darker lower range and a wide spectrum of dramatic effects. Both singers invested their characters with great depth and emotion.

Neel Ram Nagarajan was a haunting Yniold with a clear voice and fearless stage presence. The scene in which he encounters a shepherd leading his flock of sheep to the slaughter is played, in Miller’s production, as a nightmare with the boy thrashing around in horror in his sleep. It’s an effective device, bringing the terror of the bleating sheep into the walls of the castle and setting the scene for the killings of Pelleas and Melisande.

Rounding out the excellent cast were Felicity Palmer as the brittle Geneviève and Willard White as King Arkel, who, with his rich bass-baritone and dignified appearance, provided the resting pole amid the shifting emotions of the other characters. Why he so easily forgives Golaud for killing Pelleas and – however indirectly – Melisande remains a mystery. Then again, the opera, despite its medieval setting, appears so peculiarly modern precisely because it seems to validate human moods, passions and impulses without testing them against any moral compass. “I am not happy,” Melisande tells Golaud over and over again and one suspects that it is not so much unhappiness as a sense of ennui that drives her into the arms of Pelleas. Both banal and inexorably tragic, it’s a force that will dominate French cinema in the century after Debussy’s death. It may seem an unlikely recipe for great opera, but, as the present Met production suggests, every bit as powerful as La forza del destino.

Pelleas et Melisande plays at the Met on December 20, 23 and 29 at 8 pm and on January 1, 2011, at 12 noon.
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