It’s a sad story, really. Debussy and Maeterlinck had what the kids would call Major Drama over who was to sing Melisande (Mary Garden vs. the person you’ve never heard of) and so Maeterlinck didn’t see Pelleas until years after Debussy had died, so he never got to be like “word!” or, I suppose, “mot!”
Both would surely have gotten a great deal of satisfaction out of the current revival (December 17). When I tell you I shouted “bravo” for the kid playing Yniold, you may know that the cast was a uniformly fine one, as I am of the school of thought that children should be seen and not heard, and only seen if they brought and interesting adult with them, and especially not heard in opera. Nothing has made me mote seriously consider giving up opera than the prospect of hearing one more cutely pitch-deficient Parisian ankle biter whine about how much he wants a trumpet or an xbox or whatever it was that he wanted. I kind of dissociate from pure annoyance right around then.
Anyway, you didn’t ask for my views on the young. Nor did you ask for my views on Pelléas, specifically, but you’re here, so we might as well talk about something. As Miss Golightly was saying when she so rudely interrupted herself, the young Neel Ram Nagarajan is a real self-esteem destroyer to those of us who, at a rather more advanced age, still think “how on earth could you remember this kind of music?” He was pitch perfect and acted in an understated way. I daresay he lived up to his colleagues, and that’s saying plenty.
Primus inter pares: Gerald Finley, by a nose, on account of that precious urgency/musicality balance that makes for the best music drama. I mean Pelléas is one of those things, isn’t it? Like Parsifal? Where you budget a certain amount of time for your attention to drift, despite the beauty of the thing? Mine scarcely did. Finley was at his best in the unnerving scenes of Act III, the best moments of this staging more generally. I’ve said before, it is rare to feel genuinely unsettled sitting in a red velvet seat behind rejects for the cast of a Bulgarian Ab-Fab spinoff, but Finley’s edgy performance contributed to a gratifying
Glamorous, brainy Magdalena Kozena played well off Finley’s Golaud, choosing to make Melisande not some twitchy changeling so much as a wrecked creature, settled into a kind of neurotic state of inability to connect. As program notes are wont to warn, Pelléas has no arias, nothing for the beastly 66th Street Subway Saxophonist to cheer the masses with, but Kozena went right ahead and sang her lines with shape and finesse, opting here and there for special effects like a straight tone when she dropped the ring into the fountain. (This got a laugh. I have long since stopped trying to figure out what audiences think is so damned funny all the time.)
Willard White reminds us that life is unfair; that low voices age into hues of authority and anguish that composers make great use of. White now has the kind of vocal gravitas that makes me still glad to hear the likes of Ramey and Tomlinson, though he has perhaps more voice left than those elder statesmen. His French isn’t as crisp, to my ear, as that of his colleagues, but it’s hardly a barrier to enjoying his performance.
Stéphane Degout adds to the Met roster another triple-or quadruple threat, capable, versatile, and hot at least. Members of the commentariat who know the role well will, I feel certain, add to my encomium. The always enjoyable Felicity Palmer sang the rather thankless Geneviève with no lack of investment. I’d suggest letting her throw in an improv verse of whatever opera springs to mind like in La Fille, but maybe it would break the mood a little. I mean maybe she could keep things gloomy and sing a catchy riff or two from the death of the old Prioress, but I don’t know how much it would add, now that I think it through.
People whose opinions I defer to find Jonathan Miller awfully tedious, and it’s true that one can’t help thinking about the joke from college with the punchline “I think I’ll paint the ceiling beige!” but Pelléas is something he really gets. This production puts the stage turntable to admirable, disorienting use, heightening the dreamlike air: not in the sense of gratuitous college surrealist imagery; here, much of the action (I use the term loosely…don’t look for a Vin Diesel/Franka Potente Pelléas anytime soon) takes place in spaces that look like ones you’ve already seen, only just different enough to be unsettling. My one real quibble is that the concept is not abstract enough to have people utter things about Gosh What a Dark Forest We Seem to be Lost In while standing by a big non-tree-like wall.
Verily one of those off-night thrillers. The cognoscenti are there, but tickets are to be had and the Met doesn’t seem to be making a big thing of it. These are the best, because you get to feel like you’re in on something.
Photos: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera