Barbara, Martin, and I saw *Pelléas et Mélisande* at the Met on 1/25/19. It's Debussy's only full-length opera and it's unlike any opera I've seen. There are very few peaks and valleys in it, it's a continuous, unbroken stream of music and drama. The last time I saw it, in 2005, I found it to be exhausting because it was continually engaging but rarely gave any sense of release.
The opera had its premiere in 1902. It's an adaptation of a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, whose poetic, abstract plays were fashionable into the 1920s. I'll give you an example of the rather opaque dialogue - - this is an exchange between Mélisande and the man who will marry her, Golaud. He finds her in the forest, looking into a well, and questions her.
GOLAUD: You seem to be very young. How old are you?
MELISANDE: I'm starting to get cold.
Don't you love that? Lots of women are evasive about their age, but that's a new high. My favorite story about Maeterlinck is also a favorite story about Tallulah Bankhead. She made her first trip to New York City in 1917, at the age of 15. She was taken to see a Maeterlinck play by some young man, and after about a half hour of this vague, perfumed drama, she turned to the guy and said, "There is less in this than meets the eye."
Say what you want about Maeterlinck as drama, but he certainly inspired Debussy. The music is surpassingly gorgeous, gratifying for the singers, but not in the typical way. It's not vocally glamorous like you expect in an opera - - rather than having propulsive or plangent arias and ensembles, Debussy set the text in speech-like rhythms, full of expression and depth. It calls for a more intellectual kind of singer, not someone who's interested in showing off his/her high B flat.
The three leads in the cast were all young American singers with beautiful French. Mezzo Isabel Leonard played Mélisande and captured all of the mystery and evasiveness in the role. She also played the title role in the Met's premiere of *Marnie* this spring, so clearly they're throwing her a few bones. She's only 36, so she hopefully has many more wonderful years ahead of her.
Tenor Paul Appleby, also 36, played Pelléas. This role could be sung by either a tenor or a high baritone, and I have to say I prefer a high baritone in the role. A baritone would have the richness in the bottom and middle of the voice and could float or fake the high notes, if he had to. A tenor would have the high notes but would struggle a bit in the middle and be just plain inaudible at the bottom.
Bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen played Golaud, Mélisande's husband and Pelléas's half brother. He did the most beautiful singing of the evening. It helped that he was playing the most complex character, but he also had the richest voice! He was glorious. BTW I looked for his age online and didn't find anything definitive, but with a little sleuthing and creative math, I would place him around 45. Again, lots of good years ahead for him. I really want to hear him in some tasty Verdi rep someday. He's smart to sing Mozart, *Carmen,* and *Faust* for now. The Verdi (and Wagner?) can wait.
I was a little surprised to see they had Ferruccio Furlanetto playing Arkel, the old king. True, he is almost 70, and you might expect him to be playing smaller roles, but he played Philip in the Met's new *Don Carlo* in 2010, so I was a little surprised to see him in this role. But it turns out it only felt like a small role in the past because it was sung by singers that didn't impress me as much. Furlanetto was incredible, sang so beautifully and brought out all of the dignity and pathos of his role.
The Met's music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conducted the performance, and wow, he really is something. The last time I heard this it was conducted by their previous (deposed) music director, James Levine, who made the performance hypnotic and dream-like. Nézet-Séguin's take on the score was more nimble and full of bits of strange drama. There was an interlude in the first act that had a few peculiar moments for the timpani and low strings, those were striking. The performance had lots of odd little touches like that, but was still full of aching and gorgeousness.
Part of me was dreading this opera, because it was four hours long and coming at the end of a tiresome week at work - - but it turned out to be just the escape I needed.