Saturday, December 18, 2010

Met's Marvelous Pelléas Prima

As heard over Sirius last night (and early this morning), Simon Rattle made a splash in a truly sensational (and long overdue) debut at the Metropolitan Opera last night with a fascinating and generally ravishing performance of Debussy‘s generally despised “Pelléas et Mélisande” (apparently to a mostly sold out house). The orchestra responded positively to him and was in breathtaking mode from start to finish, each scene imbued with the character of the piece. A different reading than I’m used to from Levine with this score, and I rather liked it.

While I generally prefer a tenor today as Pelléas, Stéphane Degout is a wonderful baritone Pelléas and his voice contrasted nicely with a noticeable weight difference between him and Finley’s beautifully brooding Golaud.

I had to laugh after Act I when someone began to applaud and was promptly “shushed” by the audience! Since when is it bad manners to clap at the end of an act? (Yes, I know, Parsifal, Wozzeck have “those” moments, but entirely different situation.)

Like all good Geneviève’s, Felicity Palmer made me wish Debussy had given her a bit more music.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear Willard White sounding still so robust (particularly for an old King!). Willard White's utterances in Act IV were mind blowing! His final line in scene ii Si j'étais Dieu, j'aurais pitié du cœur des hommes moved me to tears (as it should). Followed by the postlude leading into the next scene - with that delicate melody in the winds before the strings come in, Rattle and the band brought absolute perfection. Along with the final intermezzo in Wozzeck it's almost too much emotion - overwhelming is an understatement. Followed by Yniold's scene about the sheep meant as much to me as everything else in this sad tale. Debussy as genius. (no little credit to Maeterlinck.). Why is this amazing child’s name still not on the Met’s website?

I loved Kožená's Mélisande - a very different approach than I’m used to in this role and a welcome challenge. There were so many details and changes in sound that this already complex creature of mystery, seemed to have even more dimensions - some a bit disturbing (but fascinating) and some rather stunning, such as the little throaty "catch" in Kožená's voice to Golaud, “avec Pelléas? Mais Pelléas ne voudra pas.”

Degout was wonderful all night, but in Act IV scene ii (my favorite scene of the entire opera) he poured on emotion that had almost been hidden all night. Good God, he was amazing. And Kožená's first "Pelléas" here was so different than I've heard before. One word - his name, instead of an announcement there was this "doom" already present in her sound. In one word. Masterful.

And the heat was on in that scene, at one point, (which must have been worked out w/Rattle) Pelléas' interrupts Mélisande ("non") in a manner I can't recall hearing sound so spontaneously. Details. Details I could hardly imagine! Weirder still, was as Kožená sang this scene I found myself for the first time EVER hearing this opera, thinking of Carmen . Something in the growly, defiant voice of Mélisande that threw me. I liked this different, approach to this mysterious heroine.

Degout's sound here, too, was darker - more covered than I typically want, but at "Et maintenant je t'ai trouvee ... je 1'ai trouvee!" (my ultimate test for any Pelléas) his medium sized voice exploded with an intensity that was glorious. (He cracked slightly a minute later on the second (and high) "Vien" following it, but understandably.) K's Mélisande felt almost too "cool" here - not innocent as most Mélisandes (maybe why I thought of Carmen?) and only in danger, seemed momentarily freed, finally matching Pelléas' now fully naked passion. Stunning fusion of great music and drama.

Pelléas' murder was absolutely horrifying - with Degout's making the outbursts sound almost as being made on the spot. Remarkable. As he died it sounded as though he shouted, "Golaud!" I don't recall this in this staging before (and, in fact, have never noticed a Pelléas yelling out like that).

Rattle's way with the prelude to Act V was ravishing.

As good as he was earlier, White's Arkel sounded like a balm in the final act - a more robust, virile King than usual. The contrast against, Mélisande's weakened state (or resolve?) was immense. Rattle slowed down the music for Golaud's entrance into the scene, so each utterance of "Mélisande" bore with it this enormous feeling of great heaviness to the sound - the effect, powerful.

Finley's big final scene utterly destroyed me. Golaud's range of emotion from penitent to (again) jealous rage, then confusion that when weighed against the sudden change in the now gentle Mélisande's responses (with Kožená now finding a rare, delicate tenderness) could not have been more intensely dramatic. I can only imagine what the effect felt like in the house. Here, Golaud's passion matched Pelléas', pound-for-pound. No, they may not have been full brothers, but they shared something major (and not just Mélisande!) As he finished the phrase, "Je vais mourir ici comme un aveugle" Finley added a sob to the final syllable that cut me to the core. Chilling.

Arkel's final monologue was infinitely touching, with White striking a noble balance between kingly duties and emotional collapse. I liked the Rattle's approach to the final pages; a bit more fractured yet somehow beautifully held together with a slight ritard in the tempo. Wistful, I'd call it.

Margaret Juntwait conducted a wonderful interview with Carol Vanness who came off as pure class. I did crack up at Margaret asking how Carol got along with that famous Nozze cast of von Stade and Battle! LOL! Vanness dodged it nicely, but it would've been a bit of fun to hear her “go off” on the topic! I was touched when she mentioned how she now occupies Giorgio Tozzi’s former office and how she thinks of him every time she enters. Very cool.

Given the lateness (post midnight) it was interesting to notice a sort of "rushed" curtain, but to a wildly enthusiastic house. A most remarkable performance.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Paul,

"Debussy‘s generally despised “Pelléas et Mélisande”


And it will perennially remain a niche piece for the simple fact that most of its music is too exquisite for most people. Further championing and exposure will not alter its status as THE connoisseur's opera.

"I had to laugh after Act I when someone began to applaud and was promptly “shushed” by the audience!"

Well, I was one of the 'shushers'... One shouldn't applaud after such beauty and delicate potency.

"Like all good Geneviève’s, Felicity Palmer made me wish Debussy had given her a bit more music..."

Oh, I agree!

Finally, even though 'Pelleas et Melisande' is my favorite opera I must admit that it's not a perfect piece. There is just one segment I find disappointing: the Act 4 love duet. There are problems that aren't fully solved and it doesn't quite hit the mark dramatically (even though Debussy seems to have worked harder on that scene than any other). Also, it sometimes strikes me as too, how shall I say.... 'effusive' or 'melodramatic'. I don't know how to put it exactly.

But for all the overflowing and substantial riches Debussy did give us here (over 2 hours worth) I cannot help but forgive him.

December 22, 2010 at 9:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To clarify:

Of course there are touching passsages in the Act 4 love duet but I'm not convinced that it 'works' as a complete unit.

December 22, 2010 at 10:07 PM  
Blogger Sharky said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

December 24, 2010 at 2:33 AM  
Blogger Sharky said...

Thank you for those wonderful thoughts on the performance - and Debussy's opera generally.

I was fascinated by what you wrote about the Act IV "love duet" - as it's some of my favorite music in the entire work (and in all of music)! I think I like it for the very reasons you mention having a problem with, i.e., its sentimentality and "melodramatic" qualities. I always look at Pelleas as a sort of an off-kilter "arc" - its fevered passions only rearing its ugly head at two points: Golaud's physical abuse of Melisande, and the heretofore melancholy Pelleas' outburst/declaration of love which ends only a few minutes later with his grisly death at the hands of his brother. The final act (for me) brings it all 'round as perfectly as any opera ever written . . . maybe more so!

Thanks for sharing and hope to do so some more!

December 24, 2010 at 2:37 AM  

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