I recall Jonathan Miller’s Met production of Pelléas et Mélisande from 1995 when it was new; Frederica von Stade, Dwayne Croft, Victor Braun, Robert Lloyd and Marilyn Horne were the principal singers. A mezzo, a baritone, two dark basses and a dark-toned mezzo, rather well suited James Levine’s Wagnerian feel for the score on John Conklin’s ugly monochromatic (grey, grey, beige) sets under Miller’s dreary, slow-motion direction. The effect was distinctive but, aside from the singing, little enjoyment and little satisfaction reigned.

Paul Appleby (Pelléas) and Isabel Leonard (Mélisande) © Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera
Paul Appleby (Pelléas) and Isabel Leonard (Mélisande)
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

Well, the production is back, bleak, uglier and more static that ever, its Victorian setting, with everyone in waistcoats and long dresses, silent servants wandering as ghosts, anachronistic to Debussy’s instructions: medieval, a spring in the woods, a fountain, sheep, a dark well, etc. The lighting is so gloomy that one could barely see the characters who were often left in shadows. Tall revolving walls that bring forth yet more rooms with furniture draped in sheets.

But those who stayed – about two-thirds of the initially almost-filled house – at the Met’s opening performance this season probably loved the performance for the same reason I did: conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s leadership. Finding far more light and shade in the work than Miller, Conklin or Clare Mitchell (costumes) wished to allow, Nézet-Séguin began the work in dark mystery, very slowly, and while maintaining that mystery, wisely emphasized the light within. Whenever a character or situation called for light – physical light, emotional lightness – the score shimmered and turned translucent. The pinpoint turns from the Met's amazingly smooth strings to the harp, celesta and flute statements seemed momentarily to throw light on the stage, but, alas, did not. Nézet-Séguin gave Debussy's interludes their due, the interstitial tissue flowing endlessly. This quiet intensity pervaded, making the opera's three terrible climaxes – Golaud's tormenting Yniold, the almost unbearable hair-pulling scene and the death of Pelléas – shocking and stunning.

Kyle Ketelsen (Golaud) and Isabel Leonard (Mélisande) © Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera
Kyle Ketelsen (Golaud) and Isabel Leonard (Mélisande)
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

Abetted by Nézet-Séguin, Kyle Ketelsen walked away with the evening as Golaud: a suspicious man to start with, he is as attracted to the strange girl he finds weeping in the woods as he is fearful of her and her feelings. He's overly cautious in his approach to this puzzling figure, not realizing how easily being duplicitous comes to her. When his fears are awakened he becomes enraged, and Ketelsen gave the role all the voice and care it implies. The veteran Ferruccio Furlanetto sang the watchful, helpless and philosophical Arkel with grand noble phrasing, if somewhat bizarre French. The contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, a well-known Rossini singer, was making her debut as the mother of Golaud and Pelléas; her rich dark sound luxurious in her brief appearances. A. Jesse Schopflocher, a fine treble, may have kept an eye on the conductor a bit too often, but he projected Yniold vividly, describing his nightmare powerfully.

One wanted desperately to like Paul Appleby's Pelléas and he acted the role pointedly. He was shy and on the sidelines at first, then courtly, then utterly smitten and lastly, willing to risk his life. Would that his voice been up to the part; he may have been indisposed, with low notes disappearing and the voice's upper third cloudy and unimpressive.

Isabel Leonard (Mélisande) © Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera
Isabel Leonard (Mélisande)
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

The passivity of Mélisande – the way the role is written – has long been discussed. Obviously abused, having lost her crown in the water (what crown? from where), she's terrified of being touched. She's described as a waif. I've seen Mélisandes who retain their fragility while remaining dangerous, if unmoving, liars. Isobel Leonard did not. After her initial scene, we see her in a fine Victorian dress; a bit later, a different one is topped by a floral hat. She fits in as a dull, Victorian. In addition, Ms Leonard, with her bright, lovely, if not very shaded tone sounded and looked too sure of herself. Her scene at the window was beautifully sung and shaped, noticeably the only time the character is alone. She seemed not to know quite what her character was, hardly a crime given the ambiguity of the text, but the only characteristic one spotted was sadness, given the lie by some robust singing.

A confusing evening. Hard on the eye, meltingly beautiful and flowing on the ear, and a mixed bag from the singers. One doesn't go to this opera looking for answers. It's more an eavesdropping experience. But here it felt as if we'd been Peeping Toms peeping at a very dull reality show. As Peeping Listeners we fared far better.


***11