A Magical Rehearing of Debussy

Classy staging for “Pelléas;” Boston revives “Alceste” and a comic night at the Met

The company has also brought aboard the Frenchmen Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeil as artistic directors who offer a highly worthwhile calling card, the first U.S. performances of the piano-accompanied “Pelléas et Mélisande.”

The performance is not a piano reduction, but the original work produced by Debussy by 1895, seven years before the Opéra Comique première, for which he completed his wondrous orchestration and added the familiar, influential interludes. It was jarring in a salutary fashion to hear “Pelléas” played by solo piano (January 21); some episodes, including the illicit final meeting by the fountain, were of revelatory beauty. Raphaël Rochet’s untiring pianism evoked cheers at evening’s end.

The engaging, plausible contemporary staging concentrated on family dynamics and the adolescent alienation of a druggy Mélisande (Patricia Petibon) and the slacker Pelléas (Kevin Greenlaw)––a pair who came to affecting life only in one another’s presence. Much creative use was made of iPods––a trendy prop, to be sure––and Carol Bailey’s spare set and costumes. Most of the action––if that’s the word for the events of “Pelléas”––took place on and around a large couch, which saw duty as tower, bed and holding tank for the family members, all of whom were onstage, if sometimes at its shadowy margins, virtually throughout.

The production’s two women shared hair color, and Geneviève (Joyce Castle) gradually attempted to restyle the punkish, pink-dressed waif Mélisande in her own “sensible” matronly style. Kudos to Rick Martin’s expert lighting, notably the bleak final image of the lovers’ illuminated bodies, hers on the couch and his in the Plexiglass rectangular fountain.

The three leading artists made excellent impressions in their local debuts. Though some effects seemed calculated to a larger space than the Florence Gould Hall, the entrancing Petibon proved herself an expert, detailed physical and vocal actress. Greenlaw––a lyric baritone, and an excellent one, rather than a “baryton martin”––showed admirable mastery of French style. An imposing Golaud, Andrew Slater displayed a powerful instrument and fine artistry. Castle leant distinction, meaning and deep empathy to every moment, sung and otherwise. Still impressively sonorous after a quarter-century international career, Dimitri Kavrakos (an Arkel in sunglasses) did not achieve similar specificity in phrasing or body language.

One mystifying decision was deploying as Le Médécin the librettist Philip Littell, a distinguished-looking man but an amateur classical vocalist unworthy of his colleagues; a worrisome touch of “in crowd” indulgence that somewhat weakened the last act of this otherwise highly professional, thought-provoking endeavor.

Boston boasts a wonderful orchestra, now under James Levine and one of the world’s richest early music scenes. Its operatic culture remains tied to the complex legacy––artistically and economically––of the defunct Opera Company of Boston, which under Sarah Caldwell in the 1960s and 70s presented an ambitious artistic agenda, including many national premieres.

Two capable troupes now compete for its mantle––Boston Lyric Opera, with four annual productions, and Opera Boston, with three. In this year’s season, between “La vie parisienne” and Robert Ward’s “The Crucible,” Opera Boston staged Gluck’s 1767 masterpiece “Alceste.” Major postwar American stagings have been rare––for Kirsten Flagstad (1951) and Eileen Farrell (1961) at the Met, a miscast Heather Harper at NYCO (1982) and Jessye Norman at Lyric Opera of Chicago (1984).

Director Brad Dalton chose the austere aesthetic of New England’s Shaker sect, with most characters, except for Apollo, the Oracle and Alceste, in black, and with stern demeanor rigorously enforced until the joyous dénouement; even Alceste’s initial grief seemed to violate community norms. It proved a plausible approach in Susan Zeeman Rogers’s scorched-looking unit set, augmented by wooden beams lowered at dramatic intervals.

Only the sub-Peter Sellars unison choral gestures emerged unfortunate. Nicolle Foland made a splendid Alceste, her strong lyric soprano cleanly produced from top to bottom, with ringing high attacks and lots of subtle musical touches gracefully executed. Looking rather like the young Gloria Swanson, Foland acted with commendable animation, expression and dignity––an always solid career to watch with increased interest. Stuttgart-based American Norman Shankle showed an excellent lyric tenor and good style, coping admirably with Admète’s challenging tessitura. He and Foland proved an impassioned, touching couple.

Stephen Salters, none too authoritative vocally or in declamation as the High Priest, comically mastered Hercules; his baritone impressed in the middle, but upward intervals lacked precision. The most imposing voice was that of resonant bass Kevin Deas (Oracle/Infernal Deity). As the Chorus Leader, fine soprano Sarah Asmar, a member of Boston Baroque’s fine chorus, stood out. Martin Pearlman achieved the variety in similar tempi crucial to Gluck, and, except for occasional pitch lapses in concerted string passages, his orchestra proved responsive and stylish.

The Met has been playing “Le nozze di Figaro” in Jonathan Miller’s uningratiating “distressed” set concept. Robin Guarino dispensed with some egregious Miller touches––like having the Count’s hunting prey tossed on the Countess’ white bed covers. On February 7, Andrea Rost proved quite delightful as Susanna, a charming, live-wire actress with a bright focus that told in the ensembles. Mariusz Kwiecien made a sexy Count who thoroughly enjoyed all the manipulations his studly modus operandi demanded; as ever he was a vocal standout, with a darkly silken baritone and legato finish that made his difficult music sound easy; he got a roar of approval after his (trill-free) delivery of his aria.

Janice Watson (Countess) acted well, taking some interpretive chances, and managed creditably vocally except for a scary crisis in “Dove sono.” Running clear out of breath at the end of the slow section, she took most of the aria’s end down an octave––not that most of the audience noticed. Canadian bass John Relyea, the Figaro, is certainly handsome and solidly audible, which seems enough for some of my colleagues; I don’t get why anyone hears star quality here. The voice shows no particular character, except in changing color for Figaro’s highest notes, not exactly a plus, and though affable onstage he did nothing individual, nothing outside the “ur-Figaro.” Like most of the singers brought up in the age of surtitles, Relyea makes nothing special of the words. I’ve heard many a “Figaro” in my time, but to their credit Rost, Watson and Kwiecien all produced line readings I hadn’t encountered before, and all three seemed to listen onstage in a way that Relyea didn’t and most young singers don’t; in the context of the Mozart/ daPonte operas, these two qualities separate the artists from the singers.

Another artist whose prominence eludes me is Jossie Pérez, visually over-coltish as the boy Cherubino and with, to my ears, an unpleasant constriction in her upper register. She wasn’t bad, but given the high quality of recent and upcoming exponents of this role at the house—Kozena, Donose, Jepson, Coote, DiDonato, etc.—this seemed distinctly “regional circuit” casting.

The small roles, ideally well-illed, were nothing special, though Yvonne Gonzalez Redman sang Barbarina well and Tony Stevenson offered a much better-voiced Don Curzio than one usually hears. Alas, the time may have come for 77-year old Michel Sénéchal to retire the fine, enduring artistry that has served him over five decades; as Basilio (a screaming queen in this production) his diction and tone are not what they were a mere few seasons ago.

James Levine likes his “Figaro” in the mainstream Central European tradition, with hardly a single embellishment or appoggiatura observed; this would have shocked Mozart and the singers of his age, but on its own terms the interpretation hummed along like a well-oiled town car.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for Time Out New York, Opera News, Opera

and other venues.

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