NEW YORK CITY.
I was no great admirer of Willy Deckers single-set, big-clock, little-red-dress traveling show, which coolly shortchanged the opera's warm heart; but Mayer's period staging, with its fussily filigreed, change-of-seasons unit set by Broadway veteran Christine Jones, had me wishing for a dash of its stark simplicity. Franco Zef Firelli's two successive Met productions were maybe too grandly ornate, but at least their grandeur was delivered with generous dollops of opera-steeped italianita. Of Colin Graham's 1981 staging I recall little other than that, despite a series of mostly lackluster casts, it didn't offend--it seemed an honest attempt to present Verdi's Traviata. And Alfred Lunts of 1966 I remember for its handsome Cecil Beaton decor and for just how lovely two Of its cherishable Violettas, Anna Moffo and Adriana Maliponte, looked (and sounded) in his gorgeous gowns. And that historic (for me) production from the old Met, originally staged by Tyrone Guthrie, struck me as the very Traviata I'd been imagining in my innocent childish head.
I doubt that Mayer's sugar-coated Traviata was lurking in anyone's head but his own (and, I guess, Jones's); and apart from the evening's musical merits it didn't offer me anything I'd be eager to encounter again. His major novelty--introducing young Mile Germont, Alfredo's sister, in Act II and bringing her back (twice) in Act III--was a nonsensical irritant; a more comprehensible one was the ever-present centre-stage bed (from which, surrounded by the Germonts, Anruna, and Dr. Grenvil, the dead Violetta rises during the Act I prelude)--but would the straitlaced Germont pere really plop himself down on this overt symbol of his son's scandalous liaison? And Mayer's substitution of skull-faced nymphs and satyrs, or whatever they were, gamboling in vulgar Vegas style, for Verdi and Piave's clearly etched (in both music and text) gypsies and matadors hinted strongly at both a tin ear and errant reading skills. Susan Hilferty's costumes, an awful melange of pastels in Act I, mercifully settled down a bit thereafter, though the men's in particular stayed on the fussy side.
A happy exception was made for Diana Damrau, who looked slim and elegant in the first two acts and properly, gauntly simple in the last. Happy, too, was her vocal estate: after a worrisome patch at the Met in 2017 and a bout of cancellations there-after, she sounded healthy and secure; and after a small-scale start she admirably rose to the role's many vocal challenges (she wisely eschewed "Sempre libera"'s notorious--if entirely optional--high E-flat); commanded the Act II concertato with surprising ease, and traced Violetta's musical line with fine precision, deep musicality, and even deeper emotion. (And maybe Mayer deserves some of the credit for keeping her penchant for overebullience in effective check.)
Juan Diego Horez, in his first Met excursion into Verdian terrain, sounded lovely and patrician at lower dynamics, a little forced and--dare I say it?--unattractive when the volume rose; and dramatically he cut a somewhat neutral figure. Quinn Kelsey, with his big, burly, Leonard Warrenesque baritone, made an odd third to this slender-voiced duo, but his singing was entirely worthy of Germont's music--and far worthier than his pedestrian cabaletta, the opera's unquestionable low point. He sang but a single verse of that, as Florez did of 'O mio rimorso," while Damrau got two of 'Addio del passato"and made me happy to have both.
I wish thatYannick Nezet-Seguin--conducting his very first production as the Met's official music director--hadn't made other cuts of better music, but I credit him for restoring the usually omitted vocal interjections afterVioletta's final collapse--a real rarity these days. Throughout, he evinced an admirable urge to present the score afresh, and brought out many striking details--I'd never heard, for example, the clarinet arpeggios in "Ah, fors'e lui" sounded so prominently--and he built the big numbers with enormous conviction and care. But I wanted a little less stopping-and-starting, a more Italianate flow to the whole than he provided. This was the fourth performance of the run, and with his clear conductorly smarts he'll probably achieve that before too long. I wish I could think Mayer was pointed in a similar right direction.
It's true, for me, of Tristan und Isolde, and it's equally true of Pelleas et Melisande: the only kind of performance that counts is a great performance--simply good ones just won't do. But 'great' shouldn't imply perfection. I was far from alone in deeming the Met's last revival of Debussy's elusive masterwork, led by Simon Rattle at the tail end of 2010, a great one, its few flaws potently swept into irrelevance. And I doubt I'm in the minority in judging this season's Pelleas, under Yannick Nezet-Seguin, no better than good despite its many merits.
Its virtues came mostly from the pit: the Met's new Music Director clearly loves the score and delights in its wonders, and he couldn't ask for a more gorgeously responsive orchestra than the Met's. He has an alert sense of the music's rise and fall, the ebb and flow within a scene, the many little climaxes that pave the way for the major ones unleashed in Act IV Throughout, there were moments to cherish: the very end of Act I, for example, where his shaping of the brief orchestral postlude perfectly captured Melisande's wistful reaction to Pelleas s probable departure. Overall, he masterfully balanced delicacy and muscle. But the evening's real theatre was unfolding on the wrong side of the prompter's box, and I kept fighting the urge simply to close my eyes and imagine what I wasn't seeing (and, too often, hearing) happen onstage.
I very much like Jonathan Miller's production, first seen in 1995: within John Conklin's tall, rotating walls, it effectively substitutes a stiffly formal, tea-and-cards-and-brandy Edwardian estate for the misty, cobwebby fairy-tale kingdom of Allemonde; and when the performers are on form and in sync with it, it injects a welcome dose of flesh-and-blood urgency into Maurice Maeterlinck's symbol-laden domestic drama.
But Pelleas is an opera, and like most every opera it depends on singing to make its full effect. That's where the Met's show fell markedly short. It couldn't have offered a stronger, more handsomely voiced, more wrenchingly enacted Golaud--or, strikingly, one more sexually charged--than Kyle Ketelsen, at last being heard at the Met in a role fully worthy of his talents, and easily meriting inclusion in the house s line of great Golauds (London, van Dam, Finley, to name just three). He provided the long evening's most riveting onstage moments, followed, after the second intermission, by near-septuagenarian Ferruccio Furlanetto's Arkel, coming into his own in his moving interactions with Melisande in the final two acts. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, a belated Met debutante in the revivals premiere a week earlier (I saw its third performance, on Jan. 22nd), was luxury casting as Genevieve, left with little to do but look sympathetic after Act I, where she sang/read Golauds letter to Pelleas with grave simplicity.
So much for the vocal assets. That the haplessly piping treble cast as Yniold proved wholly inadequate wasn't fully his fault: it's a chancy venture entrusting this role to a boy in a vastly oversized opera house (it was one of Teresa Stratas's early assignments at the old house), and this one just couldn't muster much dramatic energy, either; the wonderful "spying" scene between father and son went for nothing, with Ketelsen denied an equal partner, and the once-omitted scene of Yniold, the stone, and the shepherd (here presented as a nightmare) became an annoying intrusion.
But it was the title-rolers who fatally let things down. Paul Appleby, whom I've enjoyed since his juilliard days, seemed, like his little stage nephew, over-parted by his new assignment, a light tenor in a role better served in general by a baryton Martin, and barely audible much of the time; though he acted amiably (looking very much the enfant Golaud dismissively deems him), I missed the romantic ardor I want in a Pelleas. And Isabel Leonard, a mezzo in a role written for a light soprano, was an earthbound Melisande, more blue-blooded lady than mysterious wild child; her dark glamour (no traditional blond Melisande, she!) worked against her, and so did her habitually occluded diction, though her French proved no less intelligible than her native English had in Mamie. Her song in the tower scene, lightly scored, was lovely; but elsewhere, like her Pelleas, she had trouble being heard. I've enjoyed some good mezzo Melisandes (von Stade, von Otter, Kozena) and good tenor Pelleases (Richard Croft, William Burden); it's more a matter of timbre and projection than of range. Leonard is a clear favorite of Peter Gelb's, but to my mind she has yet to live up to her initial promise and current prominence. Like the Pelleas in which she starred, her 'good' just doesn't suffice.--New York reviews by Patrick Dillon
Caption: Diana Damrqu (Violetta) and Quinn Kelsey (Germont) in Metropolitan Opera's La traviata
Caption : Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Genevieve) in Metropolitan Opera's Pelleas et Melisande