Composer: Claude Debussy
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Librettist: Maurice Maeterlinck
Producer/Director: Sir Jonathan Miller
Mélisande: Isabel Leonard
Pelléas: Paul Appleby
Golaud: Kyle Ketelsen
Arkel: Ferruccio Furlanetto
Geneviève: Marie-Nicole Lemieux
In my “Can one get too much of a good thing?” series, I was up for another challenge last Saturday at the Met with the exciting yet daunting double bill from 1902 consisting of a warhorse of French impressionism in Pelléas et Mélisande in the afternoon and a curiosity of faux Italian verismo in Adriana Lecouvreur in the evening. Although I had tried to work my way around it, a combination of semi-procrastination, conflicting schedules and plain old bad timing made this overabundance of an admittedly excellent thing unavoidable. Since I was determined not to miss either production, I tried to be proactive and completely cleared my social schedule for the week, dutifully took my vitamins, and fervently prayed that the forecast snowstorm would not mess everything up.
My Met marathon would start at 12:30 PM with a new production of Claude Debussy’s one and only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. But then again, when you hit the bull’s eye the first time around, where do you go from there? Beside the fact that I would finally be able to cross it off my operas-I-still-need-to-check-out list, I was also particularly looking forward to hearing again the young, attractive and prodigiously talented Paul Appleby and Isabel Leonard, not to mention enjoying the fabulous skills of the Met’s freshly appointed and already riding high music director, maestro Nézet-Séguin.
That said, life can be just as suspenseful as an opera sometimes. Once we had figured that the expected snowstorm would probably only be pouring rain (Whew!) and were settling in our seats mightily relieved, a Met employee walked onstage with a mike, which is rarely good news. She, however, just wanted to let the packed audience know that the two male leads, Paul Appleby and Kyle Ketelsen, had been suffering from colds all week and were asking for our indulgence. Whew again!
Pelléas et Mélisande could just revolve around another ill-fated love triangle, of with some participants would eventually die because this is an opera and somebody’s gotta die at the end. But back in the days, Debussy’s ground-breaking score set his “lyrical drama” apart from the competition, and over a century later, it still does. And what competition! Beside Adriana Lecouvreur, the lucky audience of the early 20th century was around to attend the premieres of, among others, Puccini’s Tosca, Dvorak’s Rusalka and Verdi’s Rigoletto. Opera is such a small, and yet wide-ranging, world after all.
As the mysteriously troubled young woman whose unexplained appearance kick-starts the story, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was a lovely Mélisande. Intelligently showing aching vulnerability, inner pains and a more surprising willfulness, she was not just the passively unhappy heroine she could have easily become. Although we never got to know much about Mélisande, Leonard realized a complex character through her nuanced singing and acting, fully fitting in Debussy’s eerie world.
Her Pelléas was tenor Paul Appleby, who after sounding a bit cautious quickly turned into the sweet and impulsive young man he was supposed to be. If his overwhelming love for Mélisande was not displayed with passionate arias and gestures, the touching scene underneath her window as he was playing with her hair as well as his furtive “Je t’aime” during their last encounter were in their own way tremendously more expressive than louder statements.
Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen made a note-worthy impression as Golaud, husband of Mélisande and older half-brother of Pelléas. Physically strong and emotionally primitive, he grew increasingly frustrated at his inability to get close to his wife and overwhelmingly jealous at the sight of her powerful and reciprocated attraction to Pelléas to the point of eventually committing a reckless crime. Despite the early warning about his health, Ketelsen was in superb vocal shape and remained strong throughout the performance.
To the young American cast was added Italian bass extraordinaire Ferruccio Furlanetto, who had stunned me as King Phillip II in Don Carlo several years ago. Here again, he was simply magnificent as Arkel, the wise and weary old king whose near blindness does not keep from seeing and understanding the power of fate. Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux brought dignity and kindness to the small but essential role of Geneviève, the mother of Golaud and Pelléas. Boy soprano A. Jesse Schopflocher brought an endearing touch of childhood innocence as Yniold, Golaud’s young son.
In the opera canon Pelléas et Mélisande stands on its own not only for its bold and unique score, but also for its barely there story and omnipresent symbolism. The background of the characters is often partly known at best, and the narrative kind of moves along through self-contained vignettes that, like the conversations among the various characters, do not always seamlessly flow. Nevertheless, these challenges were handled convincingly by not only a committed cast, but a versatile minimalist set, whose haunting elegance defied time and place.
In many ways, Debussy’s music is the star of the opera. At times cryptic to a fault, but also subtly mesmerizing, the score does not try to define the story and the characters through logical plot lines or compositional conventions, but rather through atmospheres and emotions described by music, in particular exotic scales and unusual harmonies, and poetry, by way of unanswered questions and detached statements. The end result creates a whole dreamlike world that is not necessarily coherent, but is likely to fascinate whoever makes the effort to step into it.
The Met orchestra being a world-class ensemble, there was no doubt in my mind that it could literally face the music and make it its own. It could have hardly found a better conductor for that than Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who did a terrific job at detailing the colors’ transparent hues and creating spellbinding atmospheres, the overall somber tone only making the eruptions of the few dramatic moments even more intense.
The unusual experience had been long and slow, and quite a few audience members gave up during the first and the second intermissions, but for those of us who remained, it had been memorable too.
One down, one more to go.