Secrets of the shadow world

Jonathan Miller's Pellas et Mlisande, at the Met
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Now that Debussy's Pellas et Mlisande has become the latest "special occasion" opera, it's open season for any number of stage directors wanting to pry loose its dream-steeped enigmas and ambiguities. Peter Sellars tried giving it a double espresso last month in Los Angeles and only succeeded in making it more confused. Now, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, Jonathan Miller has safely restored the characters to their former opacity with infinitely more gratifying - even triumphant - results.

Though he was greeted with the obligatory smattering of boos at last Thursday's opening night, Miller's thoughtful Pellas set this symbolist tale of adultery at the turn of the century, when it was written, rather than in medieval antiquity. He went for spareness, though not with the eviscerated results of his Katya Kabanova. This Pellas is steeped in Proustian melancholy as well as in the kind of lonely, spartan, peopleless imagery of the photographer Eugene Atget.

John Conklin's set was a revolving series of walls and doorways that appeared to be cracked, veined white marble, and though it was seen in the dappled light that filters through a forest, you were never sure if it was indoor or outdoor. The sea-shores and grottos were cellars. A sense of decaying tradition was conveyed by busts of noted people haphazardly littering the scenes.

The set's asymmetrical network of doorways was particularly effective: in the opening scene, where Golaud finds the Mlisande, the doors suggested the endless possibilities that lie open when one has lost everything, as Mlisande has. But as the opera goes on - with Mlisande falling in love with Pellas amid her husband's increasing jealousy - the doors seem to lead to ever-murkier and messier depths of the characters' individual and collective psyches. In respecting the opera's shadowy symbolism and not stating what is implied, the production allows Debussy and his librettist Maurice Maeterlinck to yield up their secrets.

At Mlisande's death there are no doors, but windows allowing in streaming light and air for the first time in the opera. It is here that one realises what this woman with a secret past really is - an ethereal spirit about to be liberated from a body that she never inhabited comfortably.

The singers looked dapper in their formal wear, which created a good contrast when Golaud's volatile nature made itself felt, unusually strongly, early in the opera, after Mlisande loses his wedding ring. Victor Braun was particularly tormented in the role, infusing it with the majestic gravity of Wagner's Wotan.

In general, the emotionally charged performances frequently and purposefully pierced the veneer of Debussy's reticence. Dwayne Croft was a baritonal Pellas but was unusually robust and romantic. Frederica von Stade - celebrating her 25th anniversary at the Met - is only as interesting as her collaborators, and here her alternately spoiled, girlish, aristocratic and ghostly Mlisande was consistently fascinating. She was also in excellent voice. And in some unusually luxurious casting, Marilyn Horne was Genvieve and Robert Lloyd was Arkel.

The conductor James Levine has made a speciality of Pellas, and he pushes Debussy's expressive range from a near-Stravinskian violence to rhythmically static languor. One sometimes feared he was taking the opera down a similar path to his ultra-slow Parsifal. But he stopped short of that, even though there were passages when he momentarily lost the thread of the drama.