I went into the season premiere of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande imperfectly prepared, but eager; I came out shattered. The Cambridge handbook to the work was my cramming resource. The recording I ordered from the NYPL a few weeks ago didn't arrive, so my musical preparation was unfortunately limited to excerpts (and picking out motifs from that invaluable handbook on the piano.) Go here if you need a quick synopsis. I can't speak to what the musical atmosphere of the opera usually is, what inflections or tempi are customarily given to the score. Under Sir Simon Rattle, the Met orchestra created a dark tapestry of sound that reflected the piece's changing moods and atmospheres, from claustrophobic caverns (here, scaffolding; still stifling) to mysterious seascapes, while maintaining a sense of tension fueled by the desperate actions of people trying to find their fate (or flee it.) Space was also given for the sounds of silence, through hushed pauses in the music and deliciously drawn out pianissimi. We heard not only the sounds of the sea, but the sounds of light and darkness, of doubt and desire. Although there were a few rustlers, and what seemed like excessive coughing in the few instances where the curtain was lowered between scenes, the audience seemed to be sensitive to the delicacy and tension of the piece; with an exception for Yniold and Golaud's scene at the window, applause was limited to the intervals, and was not premature.
I was stunned to find that director Jonathan Miller was also responsible for the Met's fairly literal Nozze (pictures here and here) as this Pelléas was full of (literal and suggestive) shadows and ambiguities. The costumes and architecture set the action at the time of the opera's genesis, around the turn of the twentieth century. The sets, rotating on the Met's turntable, enabled seamless scene transitions, and played with the sense of disorientation and ambiguity, of things not being quite as they seem, as one space would transform into another. One could also read them as supporting Arkel's view of existence as cyclical. The palace was indeed triste, much of its furniture covered in dust cloths, mirrors covered, empty picture frames propped against walls, fragments of statuary abandoned outside Melisande's window. The Met archive has pictures from the '04-'05 run, but they don't really capture it. The lighting (so important in the text) was also masterful, I thought, the overall effect reminding me of the labyrinthine hotel of L’année dernière à Marienbad. I come at this without direct experience of alternatives, obviously; productive disagreement in the comments section is welcomed.
Against this backdrop, the drama unfolded, with exquisite singing. Paul Corona, in his house debut, and Donovan Singletary, as the physician and shepherd respectively, assured that there wasn't a weak link. Felicity Palmer reprised the role of Genevieve which she sang in the production's premiere, with a full mezzo and matronly presence, although her benevolence is ineffectual. As Yniold, Neel Ram Nagarajan sang with expressiveness and exemplary diction, and acted with fearless dramatic confidence. This near-adolescent Yniold, embodying the opera's tension between knowledge and innocence--or one aspect of it--was very moving. The production had him frequently on stage as an unobserved observer, which I am still pondering. Sir Willard White was an Arkel of great dignity, powerful of voice and presence. The somber resonance of his voice made each of the character's pronouncements appropriately fateful, without losing their profound humanity. I found myself tearing up more than once. In this strange, enclosed world, where the characters are in inescapable proximity without understanding each other, he embodied the tragedy of a moral anchor to whom no one listens (except maybe Melisande.)
As Pelléas, Stéphane Degout sang with a clear baritone, bringing fervor out of melancholy and repressed desire from Act III onwards. The scene where Melisande lets down her hair from the window balanced--musically and dramatically--exquisitely between yearning and fulfillment. Magdalena Kozena was a radiant Melisande, heartbreakingly eloquent of gesture and expressive of voice. It's hard for me to pick stand-out moments, but I didn't think she made a false move. Many of these movements were ambiguous, but in a productive, positive, puzzle-out-the-meaning(s) way, rather than a "Why is she doing that? why?" way. And I swear her voice blossomed as she and Pelléas acknowledged their love. Gerald Finley, besides providing the highlight of the running commentary which my neighbors kept up in the intervals ("Who's Golaud? ...He's Canadian? He's really hot. He's got, like, that tortured baritone thing going on") gave a powerfully moving performance. In his hands, Golaud was as much a victim as an agent of tragedy, in places so anguished that it hurt to look at him. Despicable in places, too? Of course; but never beyond the reach of compassion. Despite having seen him in Mendelssohn's Elijah, I was freshly astonished by the beauty and power of his voice, which he wielded with great sensitivity. Although the characters in the opera may never attain perfect understanding of each other, the ensemble work of the cast was honed and effective. Despite my initial worries about "getting" symbolist opera, this symbolist opera certainly got me.