Saturday, December 25, 2010

Golden Girls


Magdalena Kožená as Mélisande (photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

La Fanciulla del West
Composed by Giacomo Puccini
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti
Directed by Giancarlo Del Monaco
December 6, 10, 14, 18, 22, 27, 30, 2010; January 3, 8, 2011

Pelléas et Mélisande
Composed by Claude Debussy
Conducted by Simon Rattle
Directed by Jonathan Miller
Starring Magdalena Kožená, Stephane Dagout, Gerald Finley
December 17, 20, 23, 29, 2010; January 1, 2011

Metropolitan Opera

Two of opera’s most contrasting heroines are currently onstage at the Met. Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) features Minnie, as independent and headstrong as they come (think Annie Oakley with a better singing voice). Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande features the naïve young woman of the title, whose passion for her brother-in-law leads inexorably to death.

Puccini’s romantic grand opera, set in California during the 1849-50 Gold Rush, returns to the site of its world premiere 100 years ago (with its composer in attendance). Although brought back as a vehicle for Deborah Voigt, the performance I attended saw the Met debut of Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos, whose Minnie has an appealing forthrightness that lacks only the dramatic definition Voigt surely provides. Matos soars, however, during the many memorable melodies Puccini giftwraps in his score.

Marcello Giordani is a vocally formidable Dick Johnson, the thief who falls for Minnie when he arrives to rob her and her cohorts of their golden riches, while Nicola Luisotti conducts a flexible account of Puccini’s ravishing score. Giancarlo del Monaco’s production, featuring Michael Scott’s captivating sets and costumes, attractively houses this most beguiling operatic romance.

Jonathan Miller’s 1995 staging of Pelléas et Mélisande is at odds with Debussy’s musical version of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play right from the start. This tragic opera about a doomed love affair in a fairy-tale world is amazingly self-contained: all about colors, stasis and imperceptible tonal shifts, there are no arias or dramatic excesses in the music, and its very quietness about every theme in the play—love and hate, jealousy, life and death—is its greatest virtue.

Although conductor Simon Rattle (in his belated Met debut) and a magnificently gifted cast does their part by entering and embodying the static dreaminess of Debussy’s wondrous score—Magdalena Kožená’s Mélisande, Stephane Dagout’s Pelléas, Gerald Finley’s Golaud, Willard White’s Arkel and Felicity Palmer’s Genevieve could not be bettered—Miller’s painful production lifts the shroud of misty vagueness from Maeterlinck’s play and Debussy’s opera, only to replace it with a thuddingly wrong-headed conception.

These enigmatic characters, sleepwalking through their tragic lives, have been confined to a crumbling old Victorian-era mansion that nonsensically replaces the original castle in a medieval forest. Aside from reducing a universal story to a localized one, Miller’s willful deconstruction reduces things to stagy silliness: many scenes play out ignorant of what the characters are saying or supposed to be doing, such as Pelléas playing with Mélisande’s not-long-enough hair or their standing on opposite sides of the stage while confessing their love for each other.

Such lapses in taste and intelligence can luckily be avoided: operagoers can simply close their eyes and be whisked away by Rattle, orchestra and singers to that dream-like place where Debussy’s masterpiece can stand outside of any directorial meddling.

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