Pelléas et Mélisande, Metropolitan Opera, New York

Remember Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s epochal ode to impressionist Weltschmerz? Remember blurs of sound supporting wispy nuances amid shimmering textures? Remember the mystical, mythical universe grounded in a distant medieval kingdom? Remember the poetic narrative, predicated on Maeterlinck, replete with exotic symbolism and nature imagery?

Forget it.

Jonathan Miller’s 15-year-old production, recreated by Paula Williams and revived on Friday, offers a callous variation on Debussy’s themes. The action is updated to the turn of the 20th century. The revolving sets, bleak black and white, depict crumbling castle walls – even when the text identifies a forest, a park, a garden, a grotto. Instead of the key scene where Yniold encounters sheep on the way to slaughter, the evasive director has the child narrate a nightmare. Ultimately Miller and his sympathetic designer, John Conklin, invent a drawing-room tragedy at Debussy’s expense. Call it wilful trivialisation.

Under the circumstances, exquisitely ethereal music-making might have seemed anachronistic. With Simon Rattle in the pit, there was no such danger. Making his long-overdue debut and inspiring orchestral brilliance at every turn, the smart conductor cleared away haze in favour of storm and stress. He defined undercurrents of violence where others seek serenity, muted passion in place of troubled introspection. He painted with primary colours, not pastels. It all made sense, and it hardly precluded telling detail or sensitive accompaniment.

The strong cast was led by the baritone Stéphane Degout as an ardently poised Pelléas and the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena (Mrs Rattle) as a sweetly monochromatic Mélisande (am I alone in preferring a bright soprano as the eternal innocent?). Gerald Finley, unusually yet persuasively youthful, brought brooding sympathy to the unsympathetic stances of Golaud. Willard White, who made his Met debut as Golaud a decade ago, conveyed the wisdom of old King Arkel with gentle pathos. Felicity Palmer sustained authority as Geneviève, and young Neel Ram Nagarajan held his own artfully as Yniold. If one could accept Pelléas et Mélisande minus mist, this was a good night at the opera. ()

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