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A Little Tragedy of Manners : Opera review: Jonathan Miller is the latest to revise 'Pelleas et Melisande,' staging the Metropolitan Opera's version in what looks like a Victorian mansion.

March 29, 1995|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK — Everybody's doing it. Everybody's mucking about with "Pelleas et Melisande."

Poor Debussy. Poor Maeterlinck. Poor Pelleas. Poor Melisande. Not long ago in Los Angeles, Peter Sellars transplanted this misty and mystical tale of thwarted love and exquisite longing from mythical Allemonde to modern Malibu.

Now it is Jonathan Miller's turn at the Metropolitan Opera. The British director told an interviewer before the premiere that he "couldn't live with . . . the spurious, vicarious, proxy medievalism" depicted by the composer and librettist. Ergo, he decided to play the opera "in the period in which it was composed." Textual contradictions be damned.

The Met program dutifully describes the erstwhile locales: "a forest . . . a room in the castle . . . a well in the park . . . a grotto . . . . " John Conklin's brilliantly crafted, slowly rotating set defines nothing, however, but dreamy images of a stately Victorian mansion. With Duane Schuler's lighting scheme reinforcing every poetic shadow, the result is cool and clean, bleak and dull, ultimately sterile.

The occupants of Miller's stately mansion resemble elegant protagonists of the not-so-gay '90s. Clare Mitchell, the costume designer, affirms the quaint new period look--a plumed hat for little Melisande, a stiff waistcoat for primitive Golaud. It is undeniably sophisticated and picturesque, and, in this musico-dramatic context, a bit perverse.

One has to admire the intellectual precision of a vision that tries desperately to link the contemporary worlds of Debussy and Proust. One has to admire the dedication of an enlightened, obviously cooperative team of singing actors. One wants to admire minds that reject empty cliche masquerading as valid tradition.

But . . .

For all its style and all its cleverness, this "Pelleas et Melisande" diminishes its source. Call it a little tragedy of manners.

Debussy and Maeterlinck used the distance of a vague world of fables and symbols to universalize their subject. Their "Pelleas," for all its fragility of expression and muting of passion, is timeless. It deals in archetypal emotions. Miller's "Pelleas," for all its trendy revisionism, reduces the universe to a specific drawing room in 1898. As the characters are localized, their eternal conflicts are trivialized.

*

The musical values, thank goodness and James Levine, remained unaffected by the theatrical liberties on Monday. The Metropolitan Opera orchestra, now worthy of comparison with the best symphonic ensembles anywhere, played Debussy's sometimes shimmering, sometimes heroic score with a perfect combination of transparency and grandeur.

Making the impressionism sound almost Wagnerian, Levine favored remarkably broad tempos yet impeded neither propulsion nor tension in the process. It was a dazzling, persuasive achievement.

The cast was dominated by dark voices. That can hardly have been an accident.

Dwayne Croft, the ardent Pelleas, found the high tessitura no problem for his extraordinarily pliant, vibrant baritone. Frederica von Stade, celebrating the 25th anniversary of her Met debut, seemed a bit too chic and knowing to personify Melisande's all-consuming innocence. Still, she managed to convey the allure of this complex child-woman with disarming sensitivity and uncloying sweetness.

Victor Braun projected the agonies and crumbling dignity of an aging Golaud with uncanny intelligence, and with no brute force. His relatively light timbre created a significant contrast with the sturdy tone produced by Croft as his younger--and now stronger--half-brother.

Robert Lloyd brought crisply understated pathos and a nice, rolling basso to the plaints of old King Arkel--here just a bespectacled patriarch. Marilyn Horne seconded him tastefully in the brief scene Debussy allotted Genevieve, but a sit-in double had to be drafted in her place when Miller invented an additional mime episode. Divas in decline may sing small roles, but they apparently do not come back to serve coffee.

The duties of little Yniold--duties that here include more peeping Tom activities than usual--were entrusted to an earnest boy soprano, Gregory Rodriguez. His virtually inaudible piping made one realize that a full-size female soprano is more effective for this challenge.

The urchin's crucial encounter with a herd of soon-to-be-slaughtered sheep, not incidentally, was reduced to a bad-dream narrative. By exiling the action to the kid's head, Miller offered a telling demonstration of directorial evasion.

During an intermission discussion on the Met broadcast last Saturday, several experts decided that Maeterlinck's original play no longer had a life of its own without Debussy's music. Apparently they did not know of the current revival at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis. As directed by Felicity Jones, Golaud stalks the boards on stilts and his child bride spends a lot of time dangling from a rope.

Everybody's doing it . . .

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