Some in the audience stormed to their feet at curtain call with exuberant bravos for the cast and conductor. Others walked out at the first intermission. “A monumental success,” one claimed. “The worst opera I’ve ever seen,” another said leaving the theater.

Magdelena Kožená as Mélisande/The Metropolitan Opera
Magdelena Kožená as Mélisande/The Metropolitan Opera

Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, currently offered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera through January 1, is neither easily understood nor appreciated. It demands that operagoers set aside all preconceived notions of what defines opera—arias, big bountiful voices (sopranos, tenors, baritones and typically one of each), and an opera chorus to comment on or advance the action. Pelléas et Mélisande has none of these expected embellishments, and to want them to materialize somehow at some time would only mean disappointment for any viewer.

According to the program notes, Debussy never intended for his only finished opera to be a popular work. By design, Debussy forces operagoers to constantly work to understand the piece, which is told through a series of fifteen scenes organized into five acts and connected by musical interludes.

Based on a prose play Maurice Maeterlinck, it is unlike many other “classic” operas you are likely to see at the Met. For one thing, the opera is a tight-knit ensemble production consisting of eight characters complemented by British conductor, Simon Rattle, in his Metropolitan Opera debut. In this instance, it never seemed more appropriate for the conductor to take the ensemble bow because Rattle and the orchestra served to complete each performance to a depth I’ve never witnessed before in live opera.

Pelléas et Mélisande is also highly symbolic, having been based on a Symbolist work. Rather than take what they are seeing at face value, viewers must dig for deeper meaning in each phrase, each scene, to mine a significant level of appreciation for the work. From the opening scene, the viewer has to work to imagine why things are as they are in the fictional kingdom of Allemonde. The only way that to understand why Mélisande is so emotionally scarred at the opening of the opera is to begin thinking of circumstances that could have led to Mélisande fear of being touched or to have done a lot of homework beforehand because none of that context is evident in the work.

The singers—mezzo soprano Magdelena Kožená (Rattle’s wife), mezzo soprano Felicity Palmer, baritone Stéphane Degout, baritone Gerald Finley, and bass-baritone Willard White—all gave outstanding, nuanced performances that drew the audience in rather than surging out from the stage like giant waves to knock them down.

Though I heard the interplay of light and dark and water and sunlight in Debussy’s score, it was not as evident as I had hoped for in the staging. The stage was often so dark it reminded me of twilight when you can barely make out people and shapes in the landscape just before night falls. The run down mansion reminded me both of a prison, towering several stories high, and sand—always shifting, evolving, turning into a new shape, always dangerous. Jonathan Miller’s gothic staging which dates back to 1995, was the least evocative production element—decadent, heavy, and plodding—seemingly out of step with the rest of the production. It would have been truly fulfilling to see a stage design and lighting as facile and vital as the conductor and his orchestra were to the effectiveness of the overall work.

Upcoming performances of Pelléas et Mélisande with the same ensemble and Rattle conducting are scheduled for Thursday, December 23, 2010 at p.m.; Wednesday, December 29, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, January 1, 2011, at 12:00 p.m.