Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Pelléas et Mélisande -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/17/2010
Kožená, Degout, Finley, White, Palmer / Rattle

I hate to turn away from the thorough musical triumph of Friday night (and last week's roster of guest conductors was stupendous, perhaps unprecedentedly so), but my pleasure in listening was offset by dissatisfaction with the eponymous couple's characterization.

What Stephane Degout (Pelleas) and Magdalena Kozena (Melisande) -- who both sang well -- lacked was innocence. Degout is a more red-blooded Pelleas than usual, and there's something hinky from the first about his presence around Melisande. Kozena, meanwhile, sounds beautiful but is visibly sulky and all-too-evidently engaged in a silent war with her spouse and/or the world. Together with a more-morally-forceful-than-usual Golaud (Gerald Finley, magnificent here), they tell the story that's the shortest distance between their three points: Pelleas and Melisande are getting it on (or something), Melisande is miserable with her marriage and lies ever-intentionally to Golaud, and Golaud does the obvious thing by finally running his rival half-brother through with a sword.

This reading is psychologically coherent and even sensible, and if it was stage director Paula Williams who encouraged it of the cast (Jonathan Miller, I assume, was out of the question for this revival of his original) she showed some insight. Nevertheless, it (perhaps from being too sensible) squashes the interest out of Maeterlinck and Debussy's story, which has rather different occupations than its verisimo contemporaries. For Golaud's scene at her window is not a Philip-II-finds-Carlo's-picture moment (though I still think Don Carlo[s] an interestingly similar opera to Pelleas): it's a rejection of the possibility of having that moment at all. The distance between people is too great, in this space, for the revelatory truth certain to be seized like that -- whether it's of betrayal or love. So it comes out in the fourth act that Pelleas has never, to that moment, spoken love to Melisande... It's not exactly coincidence that he's killed soon after.

Together with the suggestions of guilt is a repeated thread of innocence: Golaud dismisses the hair business as childish; Arkel goes on about Melisande's essential innocence; and after the killing Golaud himself again seems (at least partially) of that view. The current revival laughs it off (or inspires the audience to, at least in the middle acts), but the thread is prominent in the performance history. At the Met, for example, casting of Melisande from the first (Lucrezia Bori, who monopolized the part for a decade) has been largely the province of great delicate and charming singers -- e.g. Sayao, Blegen, von Stade, and, surprisingly ideally in 2000, the suggestive blankness of Dawn Upshaw. And so we've seen Melisandes who are not merely indeterminately guilty/innocent -- Schrödinger's soprano -- but actually, to the limit of their strength and life, beyond those categories altogether. This, too, is a psychological type, and not merely among sociopaths or the self-serving.

This alternate pre-lapsarian dimension, like the mystery of the ultimate truth -- both shortchanged this go-round -- is no accidental feature of Pelleas. The playwright and composer felt the call of the coming modernist Zeitgeist as strongly as any verist, but went the other way (even though their musical and dramatic techniques were themselves innovative): less "real", less straight-line, less psychological, with the subjective individuals -- no longer fit to be subjects themselves in the plain -- adapted for the new age with an enfolding, elaborated wrap of opaque mystery impenetrable even (and especially) to the classic modernist trope, sexual compulsion. To strip the characters of this rare symbolist wrap and show them as, well, sexually-compelled figures of modern psychology misses the point. (And now that modernism itself has become boring, it's stale.)

But again, the musical side is fantastic. I've never been Simon Rattle's biggest fan, but he, the singers, and the orchestra deserve a thorough listen.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.