Last night, the Metropolitan Opera revived Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s opera, in the 1995 production by Jonathan Miller. I say about this opera what I often say about minimalism: If the spell sets in—if the drug takes—you’re in luck. If it does not, you’re in agony.

I cherish a comment once made by Ben Heppner, the tenor. He described Pelléas et Mélisande as “four hours of French Novocain.”

How about last night? Did the spell set in, did the drug take, for this critic (me)? More or less, yes. And it is a great opera, however you slice it.

I cherish a comment once made by Ben Heppner, the tenor. He described Pelléas et Mélisande as “four hours of French Novocain.”

Much—virtually everything—depends on the conductor. In this case, it was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s new music director. The opera did not begin promisingly: the orchestra was not together. Neither was it together on entrances to follow. All night long, there was this imprecision, this fudging, in the orchestra.

I thought of an old song: “The fundamental things apply.” They really do, even in a gauzy, woozy work like Pelléas.

At a number of points throughout the night, I was too aware of Nézet-Séguin’s conducting: of his efforts, his shaping. The spell was weak. Also, at a more practical level, he too often covered singers (in particular the baritone and the tenor, especially in lower registers).

I liked Nézet-Séguin’s spirit. What I mean is, he treated this music as flesh and blood. He even imparted some rhapsody! (Debussy does no less.) Nézet-Séguin did not regard the music as untouchable, too ethereal to tackle. Furthermore, he brought out the singerly aspects of the score (the orchestral score). This was to the good.

But, like Oliver Twist, I wanted more: more sensuousness, for example, when Pelléas flirted with Mélisande. That sensuousness should be almost unbearable. I wanted more tension, too, in other moments—more gut-stirring tension. And more sound, just sound, from the orchestra! As at the booming, aggressive ends of acts.

Nonetheless, Nézet-Séguin was fine, just fine. And the orchestra did some first-class playing. You need woodwinds in this repertoire, and the Met has them. You need a harp or two too—and the Met has them as well.

Kyle Ketelson and Isabel Leonard. Photo: Karen Almond.

The baritone portraying Golaud was Kyle Ketelsen, an American whom we met earlier this season when he was the bullfighter in Carmen. (For my review, go here.) As Golaud, Ketelsen sang ably, often handsomely. He also captured the brooding, explosive nature of the character. Actually, the character is more complicated than that—and Ketelsen did him justice, an achievement.

Our tenor, portraying Pelléas, was Paul Appleby, another American. He sang beautifully and easily, especially when in mid-range and especially when mezzo-forte or soft. His lower notes were difficult to hear (and not just because of the orchestra). And when he got louder or higher, he had trouble. In fact, he had a case of the cracks. Yet he acquitted himself honorably.

Singing the part of Geneviève was Marie-Nicole Lemieux, a Quebecker, like Yannick Nézet-Séguin. (I believe she was the only native French-speaker in the cast.) She is a mezzo, or a contralto if you like. I encountered her in Salzburg in 2014, when she sang in Verdi’s Trovatore. (For my relevant “chronicle,” go here.) Last night, she laid on a beautiful, rich carpet of sound and sang with utter security.

When I think of this role, I think of Marilyn Horne. You?

Imagine taking on the role of Yniold, at the Metropolitan Opera, when other kids are nervous simply to be at the free-throw line, or in class for a math test.

This opera has a boy-soprano role, or, in any case, a child’s role: Yniold. Indeed, it may be the biggest such role in all of opera. Yniold sings and sings. Last night, he was a young fellow with a mouthful of a name: A. Jesse Schopflocher. He showed great poise, great nerve. Imagine taking on this role, at the Metropolitan Opera, when other kids are nervous simply to be at the free-throw line, or in class for a math test.

A great luxury of the evening was Ferruccio Furlanetto, who portrayed King Arkel. How old is this great Italian bass? I’m not checking. In any event, he filled the house with that wonderful Furlanetto sound, and that wonderful Furlanetto presence. Is he as commanding, as moving, in French as he is in his native language? Virtually, yes.

Ferruccio Furlanetto. Photo: Karen Almond.

I must say that the Met’s Pelléas is oddly split. Maybe it is unavoidable. There are two acts, lasting about an hour and ten minutes, and then intermission. Then Act III, which takes a little more than a half-hour, then another intermission. The interruption is too soon, I think. We need continuity. We then have the final two acts, lasting a full hour and twenty minutes.

Again, maybe it has to be so (for reasons of scenery and such). I don’t know. But the split is both odd and annoying.

The other title role, Mélisande, was taken by Isabel Leonard, the American mezzo. Her voice was alive, always alive, and beautiful. It offered several colors. Leonard’s pitch was unerring, even when she was singing unaccompanied. Her French was excellent. In conversational singing, she gave a clinic. And she always exemplified taste.

Everything she did—every note, every inflection, every word, every gesture, every move—reflected intelligence. She is very, very pretty, as people say (rightly). She is also damn smart, and a model opera performer.

Isabel Leonard. Photo: Karen Almond.
A new initiative for discerning readers—and our close friends. Join The New Criterion’s Supporters Circle.