Conducting calls attention to itself when it is truly awful or excellent. This week two different conductors in two quite different houses employed their batons equally effectively for two very different operas. On Monday at the Met, Simon Rattle did battle and totally conquered Debussy’s dense orchestration of Pélleas and Mélisande. The score totally “made sense” as he brought out the shimmering harmonies and textures; thick velvety strings underpinned snatches of nascent melodies from the winds. The harp was properly ethereal. Altogether one felt the mystery of the inexplicable story. It is a strange tale; the symbolism is murky and no motivation is given for the characters’ behavior. Several themes kept reappearing: darkness vs. light, hair falling down, arms reaching up (and down), aquatic bodies (fountain, pond, and swamp). But there is nothing that a psychoanalyst could make sense of. Perhaps a mystic could.
The singing was glorious and the acting seemed fine in view of the fact that nothing is comprehensible. Much credit to Magdalena Kozena, Stéphane Degout and Gerald Finley who did their best to make the characters sympathetic. But more credit to Maestro Rattle for making the score tell the tale. In light of its Medieval nature, the late Victorian costuming appears inapposite, although Mélisande’s wig was perfect; she looked like Rapunzel and even when Golaud tried to drag her around by the hair, the wig stayed on her head. The set was ugly and anachronistic, revolving like the rooftop restaurant of the Holiday Inn in Southfield Michigan. There was much talk of being in a dark forest with lots of trees but the set had only one skinny little specimen; the forest scene from Don Carlo was better by far. The pond where Mélisande meets Golaud is devoid of water. The lighting in the last scene seem to indicate the sun setting in two directions. Clearly they were not going for realism here. But the furniture in the castle was quite realistic, going for an “Upstairs, Downstairs” look with lots of uniformed servants and chandeliers, not to mention parquet floors where rough-hewn stone would have served better.
On Tuesday Christopher Fecteau gave a luminous reading of a Humperdinck opera; he apparently made a reduction of the score for a chamber group of seven musicians who must have rehearsed quite a bit to have everything sound so distinct yet so unified. “Königskinder” lacks the singable melodies of “Hänsel und Gretel” and the story is a tragic one, definitely not one for the kiddies. The Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble was wise in their choice of this gem and must be admired for giving New York the opportunity to hear an opera absent from New York stages for nearly a century. The Lynch Theater at John Jay College is a good size for chamber opera. Costumes, set and staging were of the bare bones variety and I would decline to comment on the singing with the exception of soprano Katherine Wessinger who was a most affecting Goose Girl. Her flock of geese were imaginatively created by the four arms of two performers. She and Maestro Fecteau ensured that it was a most well-spent evening. Let’s have more chamber opera in New York City!
-- Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider
1 day ago