Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Down by the Water

January 02, 2011

Stéphane Degout and Magdalena Kozená Photo: Ken Howard/MET 2010

As New Year’s Eve demonstrated how The Metropolitan Opera is trying to catch up with the rest of the opera world in terms of ambition of its productions with its bracing import of a new La Traviata, my trip over to the house the following day provided examples of another change being made there for the better. Not only are there new creative faces behind the scenes, there are some in the pit as well, as the company makes efforts to draw in many of the world’s most renowned conductors (many for their first appearances here) to lead its world-class orchestra. Regardless of the quality of the productions they land with, virtually all of these debuts were universally heralded from Esa-Pekka Salonen to Riccardo Muti and Daniel Barenboim. This December, it’s been Sir Simon Rattle’s turn, and he too is providing one revelation after the next from the pit with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which I was very fortunate to see in the closing performance of its run.

This has long been a work Rattle has championed on different stages with various casts. In fact, my only other live exposure to the complete opera to date was a concert performance under Rattle with his usual house band, the Berlin Philharmonic and vocalists Simon Keenlyside, Angelika Kirchschlager, and Laurent Naori. Sunday’s performance in New York was even better than that one. Debussy’s colorful impressionism which can be done in by its own subtlety is more dramatic than any verismo score you can name in Rattle’s hands. He was matched with an excellent cast that went from strength to strength. Magdalena Kozená sang Melisande with clarity opposite a solid and capable Stéphane Degout. The increasingly impressive Gerald Finley sang Golaud and received a huge ovation from the audience. It is increasingly clear here and elsewhere that Finley’s time for operatic super-stardom has arrived. Willard White, long a favorite of Rattle's, made a superb Arkel.

But unfortunately, the musical quality of the performance wasn’t quite matched by the rather blah Jonathan Miller production being revived for the run. After Willy Decker’s brisk, modern La Traviata staging just hours before, Miller’s mid-90s-Met-Opera-bait of darkly lit Gothic walls and statuary came off as profoundly uninspired. Granted this is not an opera that gets a lot of play here in the U.S., and how often a new look is warranted for Pelléas is a legitimate question. But this unnecessarily naturalistic approach did manage to severely undercut the abstract and symbolist nature of the opera itself. Debussy’s sole opera is a fragile thing built around a female character with a past that is never revealed and with constantly obtuse motivations. The more human she seems, the odder her behavior comes off. Pelléas et Mélisande needs mystery and even if it didn’t get all of what it required on stage, this performance certainly delivered in all the musical aspects of the work. Here’s hoping I’ll hear other things this good in 2011.



thanks for a great review. I didn't see the production but heard two broadcasts. Gerald Finley is the bomb! I am coming out west to see Jonas, and I would come in a heartbeat to see Finley!
I'm with you on both of those counts. It was really a pleasure to see two excellent operas back to back while in New York.
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