Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: Pelléas et Mélisande

Kyle Ketelson’s Golaud Is One Of the Best Performances On The Met Stage This Season

By David Salazar

Debussy’s masterwork “Pelléas et Mélisande” is one of the most glorious operas ever written. Its melodies are elusive, but when performed at its maximum expression, it can wrap you up and transport you to a different state in a way only few other operas can. It is truly a masterwork.

The Metropolitan Opera produced the work for the first time since 2010-11 with high hopes and anticipation. Unfortunately, the Met’s current revival, as performed on Jan. 15, 2019, is very much a work-in-progress, though it does include arguably one of the most potent artistic performances of the entire season.

Overall Lack of Color

The production by Jonathan Miller, which premiered in 1995, is a mixed bag. The turntable set keeps things moving and the imagery can be imposing. Perhaps too imposing. The scenery is so large that it dwarfs the performers, sucking out the intimacy from the piece. When you see so much space on set, you have this desire to see it filled in some way to add dynamism to the storytelling. In some instances, we get miniature scene transitions with some action, but it doesn’t necessarily add to the essential character relationships. This is amplified by the fact that the color palette onstage features an overabundance of beige, far from the most dynamic color. Lighting doesn’t do much to compensate with an overall lack of diversity in the use of contrasting shadow and light (save for one brief scene between Golaud and Pelléas in the underground pool).

Moreover, the stage direction itself could be rather static with most of the characters standing around and singing (with one major exception).

This was most notable in how the production stages the relationship between the two eponymous characters. In their opening scene together, they sit on opposite sides of the well, which works in the context at that moment. But in ensuing scenes, the staging insists on keeping them far apart. This is understandable in the window scene as Mélisande looks out from her room toward Pelléas below. But even in the grotto and their final moments together, there is still a clear-cut distance that simply never allows us to feel any intimacy between the two. Debussy took painstaking care to develop their relationship throughout the opera in order to climax with their confession of love. Most other works would have the two characters fall in love on the instant (or already be in love), but this one is about the discovery of that love. With the characters constantly placed at a distance, the process of them mutually discovering one another never really happens on stage in this iteration.

Finding Their Way Through

This was also evident in the performances of Isabel Leonard and Paul Appleby. They both put in solid shifts individually, but the relationship never developed. They seemed stuck emotionally on the first beat of their relationship, both physically and musically, despite looking the parts.

Appleby lent a gentle tone to his interpretation of Pelléas, emphasizing his youth and innocence. There seemed to be increased intensity in his singing at the start of the third Act, especially with his execution of high notes (the high A on “et ils m’aiment”). He showed similarly strong singing in his final scene, Debussy’s more expansive lyrical lines allowing him to engage with a more potent sound overall.

But the interpretation never quite developed beyond this. In some ways, the restrictive nature of the staging left him with few outlets with which to direct the burgeoning intensity. But in other ways, you were left feeling that this Pelléas didn’t quite have as many emotional layers and the portrayal, while featuring strong singing, didn’t quite evolve; Pelléas himself never grew or matured.

Moreover, the tenor seemed to struggle with projecting his sound throughout the night (more on that later), especially when the line descended into the lower reaches of his tenor. He seemed to struggle with this and would often push his sound, often to some rough results.

As Mélisande, Leonard was far more comfortable vocally, showing no discernible difficulty with her instrument. Her high notes occasionally sounded grainy, but it did little to deter from a smooth and polished vocal reading. Her best moment was the start of Act three where Mélisande sings to herself all alone, the orchestra silenced for numerous measures at a time. Leonard’s voice bloomed here as she took her time to shape each line, shifting between a brighter quality and a more introspective and melancholic one.

She was able to capture some of the playfulness of the character in the early scene by the well, but altogether, her reading of Mélisande seemed to emphasize the sadness she reveals to Golaud. The emotional contrasts and shifts that Mélisande gets thereafter in the window scene were not quite as prominent. Without a strong sense of development in her interactions with Pelléas, the character also seems stuck overall in one emotional gear.

The two were making their role debuts and it is likely that increased comfort with the staging and working off one another will yield more potent performances throughout the run.

The Elders Rule

Marie-Nicole Lemieux made her debut as Geneviève and showcased immaculate diction and a sturdy sound as she recited Pelléas’ letter to Arkel. You could sense tension rising from her reading, as she made it clear that she was uncertain how Arkel might respond to Golaud’s request.

Speaking of Arkel, Ferruccio Furlanetto delivered one of his finest interpretations in quite some time. His French was mushy in many instances, but his singing was impassioned and full of intensity. His Arkel was also complex and unpredictable, shifting from gentle and tender in his interactions with Geneviève and Mélisande to far more intense and forceful with the men. When Pelléas comments that he wishes to see his dying friend, despite his own father potentially being on his own death bed, Furlanetto’s Arkel delivered the “Pourras-tu choisir entre le père et l’ami” with aggression; he was guilting Pelléas and chastising him at the same moment. When in the final act he tells Mélisande that Golaud “ne te veut pas le moindre mal (he doesn’t want to do you any harm),” his singing suddenly went from soft and sweet to more forceful as he delivered the message directly to Golaud.

These subtle nuances and shifts in phrases allowed us to truly feeling Arkel as an active presence instead of a more passive one often portrayed. Comparatively, his monologue at the top of Act four was pure sweeping vocalism, the bass able to imbue his reading with tremendous sense of loss and pain; coupled with Furlanetto’s own crippled physicality, it was a powerful performance.

The Star of the Show

Kyle Ketelson was the true star of the evening, stealing every single moment he stepped onstage as Golaud. When Ketelson’s Golaud walked onstage and stabbed his brother viciously in Pelléas and Mélisande’s final scene, the entire sequence was brought to a whole new level. After committing the deed, he suddenly, without saying a single word, started to collapse his body, realizing the gravity of his actions; he fell to the ground in an incredible display of pain and torment.

The rest of the performance was full of this breadth of detail, the baritone in firm vocal control the entire night. From his first entrance, walking about with a gun in his hands, there was an awkwardness in his interactions with Mélisande, his voice gentle as he tried to get close to her. Her constant “Ne me touche pas” seemed to irritate him slightly and he constantly recoiled before making another attempt to win her over. It was subtle but effective and when we encountered him once more a few scenes later, injured and bed-ridden, he continued his attempts to win her over with kindness. His singing here retained that elegance and tenderness of the opening scene.

However, Ketelson also revealed the first instances of Golaud’s frustrations with his wife. As she told him of her unhappiness, he probed at the potential reasons. When she gave him nothing, his singing took on a harsher edge as he expressed his annoyance with her ambivalence. At one point he had to contain himself, remember that he was injured. But toward the end, when he discovered the missing ring, he stood up over Mélisande, the dramatic tension suddenly palpable as he demanded that she go seek it out. “Tu ne l’as pas perdue?” and the ensuing “Où est-elle?” were so aggressive that you were almost reminded of Otello’s third act scene where he demands Desdemona produce the handkerchief. This was but a hint of what was to come.

When Golaud caught Mélisande and Pelléas under the window, you could feel the rage building from Golaud as he demanded that his brother leave. This tension built into the ensuing exchange when the two head to a pool beneath the castle. Here, the staging has Golaud consider killing his brother before stopping himself. Ketelson managed to expose the inner rage and yet we could also feel the guilt over the circumstance, the emotional shifts quick but palpable.

Ketelson put on a dramatic masterclass at the start of Act four. His vocal performance was its nuanced and psychologically frayed. In some fleeting instances you could feel that he was pleading with Mélisande, but those were quickly displaced by pure fury and vengeance. He moved about the stage like a hunter ready to take down his prey and when he did, it was vicious and nasty. There was tension with every look, every movement, and every sound that came out of his voice. When Mélisande offered him his sword, he ripped it from her hands in a manner that seemed to surprise and unsettle Leonard. When Arkel got up to defend Mélisande, Ketelson’s Golaud took one look at him and that alone put the elder in his place; there was so much fury in that glare that no one would want to mess with him. His performance was so intense that you actually feared for Mélisande; theater truly became real life.

And in the final Act, he seemed even more conflicted. There was palpable pain and confusion in his coming to terms with killing Pelléas, his back turned toward the rest of the performers onstage. Then, there was strong internal conflict present in his interaction with Mélisande and you could feel Golaud trying to contain himself out of respect for the dying girl, but also feel his jealousy and insecurity come to the fore with mounting aggression. Leonard’s vocalization grew fainter to express the dying Mélisande’s state while Ketelson’s became more potent; it was a strong counterpoint that was only elevated by the baritone’s ability to explore Golaud’s own internal difficulties.

In all, Ketelson delivered a powerhouse performance as Golaud and undeniably one of the finest to grace the Met stage during the 2018-19 season.

When Directors Make A Mistake

The scene with Yniold must be mentioned. It is one of the most complex in the score, not only emphasizing Golaud’s desperation, but also showing how abusive he could be with the others around him. We see a father using his own child to find out about his wife’s “perceived” infidelity and explore how he potentially hampers his own son’s innocence and honesty. Ketelson was brilliant throughout, the baritone using all his vocal resources to express the increased desperation and frustration of the character. We could feel that he was reaching a breaking point, which would inevitably come to fruition in the ensuing act.

But the scene didn’t quite work.

In the role of Ynoild was boy soprano A. Jesse Schopflocher. He did the best he could with the role, but the dramatic burden that Ynoild carries is quite potent and Schopflocher, while clearly doing his best and managing it quite well from a vocal perspective, was not up to the task dramatically. The part is challenging to be sure and it was clear that the young boy was very preoccupied with ensuring he got his entrances right as he would glance over at maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin when it was his turn to sing before turning back toward Ketelson. It was a predictable pattern that kept the scene at bay and the interactions between the two limited. The scene fell flat.

It must be said however, that this is in no way placing the onus on Schopflocher nor is this a repudiation of his talents. The simple fact that he is taking on a solo part on the Met stage is fantastic. Moreover, seeing him running around and hiding from Golaud during the entire opening scene of Act four was undeniably effective. And it was surprisingly refreshing to see the production team at the Met take a risk, but in this case, it didn’t quite pay off.

One wonders how the directors (both musical and stage) didn’t realize what was going on or didn’t attempt to make any changes to improve the dramatic flow of the scene. If the scene was blocked that way to facilitate Schopflocher getting through it, then we have another issue altogether – “getting through it” should not be objective of one of the foremost opera companies on the planet.

In this case, it might have been wisest to cast a soprano in the role to ensure the scene took flight dramatically. It is certainly more “realistic” that Ynoild be played by someone his age, but once you overcome the surprise of seeing a real boy onstage and engage with the scene on its own terms, the awkwardness of the execution makes the decision gimmicky and takes the spotlight away from the intense tragedy of Golaud’s character. It thus undercuts both performers instead of lifting them and the drama up.

Playing It Safe

This is the second opera in Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s big season as the new Music Director for the company. There were times when his music sensitivity was on full display, such as the connecting interlude between the first two scenes at the start of Act four; the music had ebb and flow, a sense of building and yearning that grew from moment to moment. The opening of the opera also had a gentle mystery, the phrases slower in tempo with space in some of the silences. In the opening scene of Act four, Nézet-Séguin seemed to be on the same wavelength as Ketelson, the two elevating one another, the orchestra suddenly discovering a wide-ranging palette of colors and emotions. In these parts, the maestro’s way with the music reminded me of the more nuanced readings of “Parsifal” and “Elektra” from last season.

But unfortunately, the rest of the performance lacked any of this excitement and intensity. As has become common with a Nézet-Séguin performance with the Met Opera Orchestra, the playing is refined and there is a sense of polish in the music-making. But it all comes at a cost of feeling overly safe. Nézet-Séguin never seemed to explore the vast color palettes at his disposal; the tempi never seemed to shift or build in anyway. It all sounded as monochromatic as the large beige set.

The fact that the relationship between the two titular characters never had any true emotional development across four scenes was partially on the maestro as he simply didn’t seem to really draw unique discernible qualities from the orchestra or his soloists in those moments. You never got swept away by the music, its emotional power seemingly shut down. For example, the end of the third Act builds to an intense fortissimo orchestral coda that should bring down the curtain with a tremendous tension hanging in the air. The score itself asks for “Avec emportement (with escalating emotion)” and molto crescendo. The orchestra sounded muffled at this conclusion (its dynamic intensity seemed far more like a mezzo forte), the crescendo was never heard or felt, and this amazing coda was the epitome of anti-climax.

Then there were simple issues of balance where the conductor didn’t seem as attuned to some of his soloists’ needs in specific moments. This was most noticeable with Appleby’s performance, the orchestra repeatedly washing his sound out. At one point, the tenor was so overpowered by the orchestral line that he seemed to have no choice but to noticeably push his sound to be heard.

One imagines that this is the result of being the opening performance of a complex score with a number of role debuts. Perhaps over the course of the run, the increased comfort between soloists and ensemble will yield a more cohesive effort. There are hints that this could potentially come to fruition in a future performance.


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