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The sea was angry that day, my friends

finley_metIt’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.

kozena_degout_metStéphane 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

124 comments

  • Maury D says:

    Well, a final word. I blogged for five years. People will say critical things--it’s part of the deal, and if you’re too thin-skinned to take criticism (frequently valid), you shouldn’t put your words in a public space. Much of the time, what people say, especially here, is worthwhile. It’s an erudite crowd.

    What takes me aback is the righteous indignation. If you’re reading me now, you probably have read a word or two of mine before, and it probably isn’t a huge shock to you that singing is what I write about, that and a little quip here and there, where I can.

    A better review would mention Rattle. I don’t dispute it. But if reading a review that talked only about the singing truly enraged you, I don’t much know what to say to you except skip what I write in the future, because, to quote L’Incoronazione di Poppeye, “Io sono lo che sono, e questo e tutto che sono.” I don’t think I’m going to write substantially different reviews any time soon, and there’s no reason you should read what will only frustrate and offend. You can find more complete reviews easily enough. I recommend the ones in the Post, often the best opera reviews out there.

    • Please, mate, this is really embarrassing and if it were possible to re-edit comments over here I’d jump on the train. I’m really not a native speaker and for us there’s sometimes an autistic barrier of socio-emotional context. I guess it my comment sounded like lecturing and posturing. I haven’t seen that many of your reviews and since I started commenting in earnest, I’ve seen you pop up only occassionaly. So there wasn’t much chance of of ‘getting’ your preferences and the context of your contribution. I’ll pay closer attention in the future, contrary to your suggestion. There’s so much to learn from so many contributors here, and your joy and passion, as well as your sense of humour, are clearly evident. So please accept my apologies and I’ll try harder next time. There’s always a lesson to be learnt.

      K

  • Ruxton says:

    Maury, I liked your review- it was entertaining and interesting and I’m never likely to see the production anyway :)

  • RRnest Thesiger says:

    A cup of praise to DonnaCarlo for those fab comments way above. The names Pel and Mel will never be far from my mind when I listen to this opera. And irking the old fart applies in SO many situations.

  • Cocky Kurwenal says:

    Maybe Rattle, like so many other artists these days, was inaudible at the Met. I really enjoyed Maury’s review, and I’m not really sure why the uproar -- it isn’t as if it was set up to be the definitive last word on Pelleas at the Met this season from any source whatsoever. Parterre is a blog and a gossip site, albeit one with a particularly well-informed contributor base, but all it sets out to be is interesting and entertaining -- you aren’t owed a national press style review of anything.

    Incidentally, I’ve seen Rattle conduct both Pelleas and Parsifal and both were, to be frank, dull as ditch water -- I can well imagine not having much to say about him.

    • lorenzo.venezia says:

      interesting. I was in Los Angeles when Simon was the Young Turk principal guest conductor (for Giulini et al, ’80s) and much of what he did was magical, a Sacre du Printemps that electrified, an Act II Walkure that made you forget it was a concert, a Mahler 2 that was, indeed, cosmic, etc. But friends who worked with him at the Aix Ring told another story, that middle age was erasing the blazing youthful spirit and that he was becoming, alas, dull. It was hard to believe, but not so hard after all ;-)

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        I always think there must be something wrong with me every time I see him, because I don’t understand the greatness, something which is a bit harder to identify in a conductor in any case. But there it is, that’s how I reacted and it’s not as if it’s my reaction to every conductor I ever see.

    • m. p. arazza says:

      “Maybe Rattle, like so many other artists these days, was inaudible at the Met.”

      There actually are locations in the Met where you can hardly hear the the orchestra’s playing, in which case it would only be correct to refrain from comment, at least on that aspect of the conducting.

      • Jack Jikes says:

        Where? Under the Parterre Box (literally) overhang? Please be specific.

        • m. p. arazza says:

          Yes. (Although I’m sometimes convinced it varies from seat to seat -- here I wish I could be more specific.) But also, in a different way, way down front, although that can be heaven in itself: the orchestra providing a kind of muffled cushioning that never detracts from the real sound of the voices.

          • Jack Jikes says:

            I agree. However I seek out the positions where you get an
            orchestral blast simultaneously with vocal splendor. Based on your astute comments, I think you know the very locations I’m talking about.

    • Camille says:

      COCKY — dull as ditch water was just what I heard the other evening. Sir Simon’s rattle has put Camille to bed, prostrate with disappointment.

      Never thought I would be saying how good Levine was, in comparison to another conductor, but having heard him, along with the MAGNIFICENT Jose van Dam, in 2000, in this same dreary GREIGE production, I must say that the Finley/Rattle was a very weak watery one, in comparison.

      Not to mention, Sir Willard White as a towering and great Golaud, in the Peter Sellars production, as heard in Amsterdam.

      Sorry, kids, but I agree with Cocky. When he had the Berlin Philharmoniker at Carnegie Hall, quite a few years back, in Gurrelieder, well that was something wonderful, but this Pelleas was a real wet firecracker. Sorry, sorry, sorry, to not bow to received opinion. That is my experience of this man’s work.

      • MontyNostry says:

        My general feeling is that the saintly Sir Simon tends to kill scores with kindness. He is so concerned with detail and gravitas that he loses flow and drama.

  • Ruxton says:

    Thanks Batty -- does kind of explain it. Common women frequently sound like the type of queen that hasn’t much vocabulary. It’s easy to mix them up. :)