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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Opera Review: The Necessity of Relationship Counseling

Sir Simon Rattle Makes Pelléas et Mélisande Hum.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Victorian Uncertainty: Magdalena Kozena and
Stéphane Degout in Pelléas et Mélisande.
Photo © 2010 Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
On Monday night, the Metropolitan Opera presented the second of five performances of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande this season. This revival of a Jonathan Miller production transports the action to a big, spooky house in the 19th century, an appropriately gothic atmosphere for this fairy tale of love, jealousy, and a marriage gone horribly awry.

The star of the performance was Gerald Finley as Golaud, the prince caught in a romantic triangle with the two title characters. Mélisande (Magdalena Kozena) is his long-haired, strange bride found weeping in the woods. She marries Golaud, but falls in love with his half-brother Pelléas, a curious, unfulfilled romance that drives Golaud into a jealous frenzy. He kills his brother. Mélisande dies, heartbroken in the excruciating last act.

Debussy's opera lacks arias. Like the middle works of Wagner, everything is dialogue and interaction between two, maybe three characters in a series of 15 scenes. There are no conventional choruses or ensembles. In other words, great singing actors, are required. This cast has them.

Mr. Finley's finely detailed performance captured the deep flaws built into Golaud, and the slow build to violence over the evening's first four acts. An intelligent singer and a fine actor, Mr. Finley's performance got better as his rage seethed and bubbled, ending in grief and remorse at his wife's deathbed.

Magdalena Kozena (the wife of the evening's conductor, Sir Simon Rattle) was a strong, unconventional Mélisande, not the wilting flower associated with this role. There was something of the destructive faerie bride about her performance, something unearthly in her Act III solo in the tower. As she sang and combed her long, spilling hair, she drew Pelléas like a moth to a flame. Her Mélisande was reckless, not childlike, a destructive force that was, ultimately, destroyed.

Pelléas is the tricky part. Essentially passive, he is victimized, first by Mélisande and then by his brother. And to make things even more complicated, Debussy wrote the part so it can be sung by a tenor or a baritone. Stéphane Degout fits into the latter category. His high-lying instrument was well suited, reaching into the upper end of his range for the climactic love scene that ends in his demise.

The Met has surrounded these three fine leads with a strong supporting cast. Bass Willard White is particularly moving as Arkel, if not always steady of tone. The young Neel Ram Nagarajan was ideal in the part of Yniold, Golaud's son. This is one of the largest parts for a small child to be written into a major opera. Working with Mr. Finley, he made the scene where Golaud uses his son to spy on the title characters a chilling example of abuse by an obsessed parent. More moving was his solo scene in Act IV, staged here as a fitful nightmare.

Sir Simon Rattle stretched the textures of this work to their Wagnerian breaking point, taking very slow tempos at the outset and building momentum over the course of five acts. This unconventional approach paid off in the wealth of detail revealed--including hidden quotes from other operas! It is hard to believe that it has taken this long for this acclaimed British conductor to come to the Met. Happily, his arrival coincides with one of the finest revivals of the season.

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