The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Met (NPR): Debussy's Pelleas - Miller production (revival) - through heavy naturalistic trudge under Simon Rattle (debut). New Year's Day.

With only so much experience in opera thus far, it seems that debut of Simon Rattle with the Metropolitan Opera has become long overdue. The Met granted him his choice of repertoire with which to make it; that choice is obvious. He had what on paper naturally would appear a good hand-picked cast with which to work, and among productions that originated during Volpe era at the Met, a good pick as well – by Jonathan Miller. Miller sets Pelleas during time it was written, the Belle Epoque era. Miller has gone further in making light of to abolishing altogether elements of mysticism that infuse Maeterlinck’s text, then some of Debussy too. Perhaps more controversially than anything else, Melisande is no longer the innocent waif, but even deliberately active forthright protagonist, perhaps driving it all, behind much action to take place,

One other irony is that wisest presence on Met stage for this appeared to be Golaud (Gerald Finley). Normally, we think of Golaud, as lone character in this abiding by classical reason or logic that in being trapped by all of what is phenomenal in his midst turns out at end of day to turn him into the most uncomprehending, least enlightened, basically most clueless among modest sized cast of characters populating Debussy’s opera. Simon Rattle, conducting a work he has conducted at Salzburg with the Berlin Philharmonic before, then two years later at Staatsoper with their own, Staatskapelle, instead – once same evening Barenboim conducted Schoenberg’s Pelleas with the Philharmonic. Stage direction at Staatsoper interestingly fell under aegis of being posthumous revival of ‘Grandma (Ruth Berghaus)’s’ production. At Salzburg however in 2006, the team that staged it there had initiates of Allemande in upright position, dressed as clowns, all facing front and failing to interact with one another. Rattle perhaps achieved the most responsive playing so far for Pelleas from Staatskapelle Berlin.

Rattle’s Met effort here sounded as though more of one piece than how has been described his outing with Pelleas at Salzburg five years ago. There by now certainly is some concept in mind, but what I would describe as still practically inscrutable. It is refreshing to hear Pelleas sometimes played unabashedly, unambiguously realistically direct, as one has already on disc in differing ways from Pierre Boulez and Claudio Abbado. Much in the way of wafting by, being least bit ambiguous or mysterious or implied to be in Debussy’s scoring goes mostly by the wayside here. Robert Wilson might be a more interesting choice of producer - with all its use of abstract lighting, graphics, slow choreographic gesture together with which for Rattle to work than Miller.

Rattle sought out of Debussy’s score its often full orchestral weight - development of musical argument along these lines. It was in this aspect of going about it that I fear Debussy’s score became something somewhat fleeting and elusive to Rattle – the more weighted down, the more elusive to maintain a strong grasp on it. Rattle continues most interested in bringing obvious darker undercurrents to Pelleas constantly to the fore; no doubt, on the other hand, doing Pelleas all svelte, misty, wispy, wafty is a distortion. This also proved the slowest Pelleas I have yet heard – clocking in at 171 or 172 minutes, not counting intermissions, applause, etc. Bernard Haitink, with Orchestre Nat’l de France, comes in, still quite slow, at 162. Here was a Pelleas almost along lines of late-career Knappertsbusch or Goodall - doubtful that either maestro ever conducted it.

Hi-Fidelity, reviewing the EMI Karajan Pelleas years ago, described it as more Maeterlinck, heavily allusive to Symbolism, than Debussy. It is likely the sveltest played Pelleas in modern sound - veering close to glutinous during this score’s most saturated writing, such as interlude almost midway through Act Four. Tempos are comparably very broad to on the still fairly recent Haitink (extending beyond it only by a minute).

Debussy however was, in adapting Maeterlinck, striving for realism, but defined along different parameters than the naturalism in vogue during his day. What more uninspiring can be turned into a libretto, in other words than a Theodore Dreiser novel? (And yet that has been, in terms of commission, been tried at the Met recently). I have also avoided on purpose listening to Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice - and have regretted time spent on Heggie’s Dead Man Walking I would rather admit accidentally stepping in than listening to again. For objectivity’s sake, it was worth one try.

When taking on Debussy’s Pelleas, to avoid giving it any slanted perspective, one has to judge for one’s self how subliminal or overt to reckon its dream-state. The Miller production has ditched this as just reckoning it further extension out of Romantic myth, cliché that in partly different way Debussy left behind too. With Pierre Boulez – preferable on his old Sony recording, not to demean the integrity of Peter Stein’s production on DGG – a crystalline percolated flow forthrightly conveys Pelleas’s realism.

The closest on disc to Rattle’s interpretation is likely Bernard Haitink (Naïve). What reticence, lumbering surfaces therein however occurs with overall line in perspective, and toward keeping all supple numerous openings out – acutely moving the rapt never motionless stillness (as informed by what surrounds the line) for Melisande’s gentle, fleeting oasis of ‘C’est que jet e regarde’ during love scene in Act Four - there being illusion of continuing motion underneath through overtones, memory – with all orchestral activity having ceased for one measure. Anne Sofie Von Otter, not lighter casting than Magadalena Kozena suggestively nuanced this; Kozena emitted a loud yawn through it.

What largely resulted for Rattle was in a still valid hybrid approach to interpreting Debussy’s Pelleas was more than the alert realism of the Boulez interpretation – not desirable that Rattle attempt himself – a stodgy naturalism even lopsided as such – more prose than poetry – perhaps mildly denigrating, demeaning what Jonathan Miller’s production, with expected meta-textual ironies all its own, might want most upfront to accomplish. In fact, for stretches of this under Rattle, all appeared to be prose. He best brought matters to life for more dramatic passages, such as the finale to Act Three – Act Three often better paced, granting also the Met orchestra opportunity to sink slightly more into what they were playing than earlier and/or elsewhere.

More glutionous in terms of weight than texture was Rattle’s approach. Dynamics tended to be generically loud, denying suggestive color contrast for such lines as Pelleas’s ‘Nous aurons un tempete’ along seaside near end of Act One and for Melisande’s ‘je ne suis pas heureuse’ ending central scene with Golaud during Act Two. Dramatically climactic moments at end of Act Three and during Act Four did not stand out as better than reticently violent from what had come before, for playing already having become too loud. Veering close to massaged solos by Nick Emmett for second interlude in Act One, and by Rafael Figueroa (cello) under sagging English horn right before pair of half-brothers entering caves in Act Three. Reticent poise inhibited making supple transitions during seaside closing scene to Act One and filling out Pelleas’s beautifully undulated ‘Je les nous’ – most relaxed moment during Tower scene opening Act Three – as though wary of compromising a more stolid stance having to prevail.

After making phlegmatic the subterranean portion of Act Three - of good cross-voicing among orchestral lower reached - Rattle made worked or pedantic re-emergence to daylight, then excessively scherzo-esque what animation to follow. Eventually the close to this scene, all slightly over a line to being stiffly detached, could have had one ask what Debussy might have plagiarized from Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite – except for the Grofe having been composed later. Other seemingly contradictory gilding occurred elsewhere. Mystery was most curiously lacking for evocative interlude before grotto final scene to Act Two - from low bassoons’ iunison with cellos even through shimmering tremolo descent in divisi violins for effort within their playing showing.

Magdalena Kozena as coltish, but distraughtly restrained Melisande made nigh perfect devil’s advocate for keeping Rattle off his guard against his own lesser instincts – of stiffly, vaguely groping his way about Debussy’s Pelleas. Tone tended toward opaque, pressed near the break, compromising pitch and consistent with much getting placed back. Innocence of Melisande became gravely in doubt – if as free, driving agent through action of this Melisande can still make a good liar to Golaud – her pouted, grunted low D’s right after being queried while at Golaud’s bedside about issue Golaud thinks she might have regarding Pelleas. French pronunciation– occasionally with swallowed consonants, tended to be thick – except for welcome moments of relaxation vocally, mostly while in the company of Pelleas – and for Melisande’s chanson as well. Even several instances of ‘laissez-moi’’, similar therein resembled indicating hypothetical Monica Vitti take on Melisande instead of better, one plausibly halfway enamored of Pelleas. ‘Ouvrez la fenetre’s’ during Act Five got close to as heavily limned as good warnings earlier to Pelleas of Golaud approaching nearby.

Stephane Degout as Pelleas, genuinely French casting at last, was very nearly as well cast as half-brother for Gerald Finley. He most often infused with warmth his naturally baritonal timbre for Pelleas , even conveying something of mystery that, for so much wariness of abandoning reason for cliché, Rattle became prone, pedantic to eschew. Pushed quality to Met orchestra’s playing in driving passages – missing slightly what eroticism compels them – abetted well Degout following suit – and even misguidedly attempting to match timbre with that of Kozena a few times. The strain in doing so was obviously felt. Acting, with natural feel for musical idiom and text, and also for Pelleas’s sensitive prudence in regards to threat about, was most realistic and believable. Degout cut an altogether handsome, likable figure as Pelleas - with much oppressively hardened all about overtaking the usually hazier gloom, hint, hint, cliché, of Debussy’s inspiration. Freely achieved top during Tower scene was most refreshing to hear.

Gerald Finley made highly credible a perplexed Golaud, making beautifully limned contrast between Golaud’s sensitive qualities, including befuddlement while interacting with Yniold in Act Three and guarded manner toward allowing jealous suspicions to overtake Golaud too early, and his aggression. Here was a definitively complete interpretation, not yet exceeded (or matched) by anything else this Met season thus far. The right snarl, incisive French and force for violent declamation came all forward, yet as compelled from within. Over slightly jerky accompanying from Rattle, Golaud’s imploring to Melisande for some reckoning, greater understanding as always to be beyond Golaud’s grasp, was deeply moving. Finley’s free top – for instance for ‘la joie’ toward end of scene in Act Two – revealed o youthful perspective to still be within Finley’s grasp- not lost yet starting in on heavier repertoire – toward as more easily Balstrode for English National Opera to win sympathy than Golaud. We have today, add Laurent Naouri, two Golaud’s sharing mantle belonging before to Jose Van Dam.

Veteran mezzo Felicity Palmer (Genevieve) with beautifully pointed, insinuated French, Paul Corona (Shepherd/Doctor) and after a throaty start Neel Ram Nagarajan (Yniold) hardly less, made for an altogether first-rate supporting cast – Rattle’s forceful not fortissimo marked but played pizzicato to open Yniold’s scene – yielding soon thereafter to better flexibility – not to unduly distract Nagarajan.

Former Golaud, even sounding intermittently like a second one on stage - long time colleague, close friend with Rattle - was Willard White to return to the Met (and Miller production) as Arkel. White fully conveyed fine dignity, wise forbearance, gravitas, and mystical lift to Arkel. Lack of mystery to Met brass underneath, for Rattle’s insistence on projecting forward Debussy’s sonorities, accompanying Arkel’s opening lines was enigmatic. Rattle’s sincerity could hardly be in doubt, especially at such a moment in this, so it was frustrating it was to figure out what it might be he wanted here.

White became taxed with some of Rattle’s slow pacing – as to sustain line, tone very well making awkwardly diphthongal some of his French. His easier lines to practically calmly bring Act Five to a close got drawn out to vocally relaxed Gurnemanz scaled proportions, practically making full epilogue out of all left to unfold, enlighten us once Melisande has mysteriously slipped away, then for remainder of long – the slowest Pelleas until now? - New Year’s afternoon quietly slipping away thereafter.

Comments dedicated to Dr. Jong-Wook Yu.

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