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Overnight

Leonard shines in Met Opera’s haunting “Pelléas et Mélisande”

Wed Jan 16, 2019 at 3:30 pm

Kyle Ketelsen as Golaud and Isabel Leonard as Mélisande in Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande." Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

Kyle Ketelsen as Golaud and Isabel Leonard as Mélisande in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera


Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is unique, not only in that it is the composer’s only complete opera, but also in being a singular work in the entire operatic literature. An apotheosis of Debussy’s art, it is without any plot to speak of, barely a story, and yet is one of the most dramatic in the repertoire, expressing a vast range of atmospheric moods and sensations of time, gliding from one exact and exquisite gradation to another.

Johnathan Miller’s production for the Metropolitan Opera, which opened Tuesday night, is one of the finest in the house’s modern history. Nearly 25 years old, one hopes it will remain in the Met’s rotation in perpetuity. It is a gorgeous, sensitive and wise staging that looks at the past from the point of view of a decaying present, while creating a setting that seems outside the flow of time, a perpetual never.

More than in any other opera, the drama is in the music — the characters are extensions of the notes, music heard through voices, personifications without agency. There are no arias, recitatives, nothing in the way of standard operatic form. Golaud, Mélisande, Pelléas, Arkel, and Yniold are in constant dialogue amongst each other and with the orchestra.

Tuesday night, the revolutionary, mysterious music was supported by solid performances from the principal singers and the MET Orchestra, fine but also dry, matter predominating over energy. There was insufficient bloom to bring out the full quality of the opera.

In the opening bars, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin managed the dynamics of the music with skill, but for most of the night, the orchestral colors, and the emulsification of Debussy’s sound, were closer to a charcoal drawing than the pastels waiting in the score.

This was the case too in the first two acts with tenor Paul Appleby’s Pelléas. His articulation of Debussy’s phrases was a little stiff and awkward, without a natural feeling for the cadences of French that guide the vocal lines. In Acts III and IV, though, his singing was open and mellifluous, the character vivid.

The first to appear on stage are Mélisande (mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard) and Golaud (bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen), Pelléas’ half-brother. Leonard rose slowly from the ground as the music itself floated upward, a nice touch for a character who appears from nowhere and has no discernible past, even to herself. Leonard and Ketelsen were excellent, their voices two of the most colorful elements of the evening. Her quasi-affectless manner and his grounded masculine intensity were strong expressions of the characters and an effective contrast.

The other excellent performance came from bass Ferrucio Furlanetto, who sang Arkel. The weight, fullness, and edge of his voice produced a powerful gravity, and Furlanetto had a superb emotional depth, his voice expressing real anguish in the final act. Boy soprano A. Jesse Schopflocher was poised and natural as Yniold, with impressive projection, let down a bit by stage direction that didn’t seem sympathetic to the behavior of a young boy.

Along with the dreamlike quality, the feeling of fate and doom infuses the production like a fog and comes through the subtle and remarkable lighting design by Duane Schuler. With Clare Mitchell’s Edwardian costumes and the decaying country estate designed by John Conklin, the setting could be pre-WWI, decadent, aristocratic Europe. It also could be a dream of the afterlife, the labyrinthine rooms and walls haunted by ghosts, who pass the time in a distracted, solipsistic haze.

Miller’s production is worth experiencing at the very least for the way it sidesteps the obscurities of French symbolism, while still making use of touches of Gustave Moreau and other painters. The musical and dramatic meaning instead emphasizes provocative ideas of innocence — Pelléas is blithe to the peasants starving around the estate and the reason why the gates are sealed at night, while Mélisande seems unaware of her own pregnancy via her husband Golaud — and worldly knowledge of death, something Golaud and Arkel touch on frequently.

That experience was strong Tuesday night, even if not at the enveloping and mesmerizing level that is in the score. One imagines that as the performances continue, the colors and atmosphere of this Pelléas will increase.

Pelléas et Mélisande continues through January 31. metopera.org; 212-362-2000.

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