NEW YORK — Yannick Nezet-Seguin had perhaps his best night yet as Metropolitan Opera music director with the Tuesday opening of Pelleas et Melisande, the Debussy opera that he extolled on social media as one of the greatest artworks ever.
But it’s hard to know how much of that audiences will get in his four-performance run in repertory through Jan. 24 at Lincoln Center.
The opera itself is alternately considered a religious experience or a three-hour-plus bafflement.
For skeptics, vocal lines and orchestra wander about in separate worlds with storybook characters who don’t know what they’re doing. For the converted, the score explores the inner lives of terribly real people with a precision that not even Wagner achieved.
Tuesday’s audience walkout rate — more than usual on a Met weeknight — did not include several composers in the audience, including Kaija Saariaho, Gregory Spears, and Michael Gordon, or uber-diva Anna Netrebko.
One must note, too, that the Met departures were nothing compared to the infamous slow-mo evacuation at the 1986 Philadelphia Orchestra concert performance of Pelleas.
This Met revival had a definite sense of renewal: For all of the opera’s dramaturgical mist, fog, and fleeting shafts of light, Nezet-Seguin’s approach was that of maximum clarity.
While the onstage characters make up their reality as they go along in this highly symbolic story of a prince finding a mysterious woman while lost in the forest, the superbly controlled orchestra was the truth-teller, with Nezet-Seguin meticulously charting the progression of the recurring motifs to their bitter, gnarled end in the opera’s five acts.
Nezet-Seguin’s choices of instrumental blends avoided mere prettiness and felt particularly modern, serving the opera’s darkest nightmares. His brisk but never rushed tempos were a considerable plus, giving scenes a healthy pulse, well-built tensions, and a sense of conclusion even in the most enigmatic endings.
Though Act V has one of the quietest endings in all of opera, he sustained a solid core of tension.
Certain lines had particularly pointed emphasis. Among them: “Where are you going? I don’t know. I’m lost, too." And, “I felt as though the whole forest had fallen across my chest.” And, “All the stars are falling.”
That’s in keeping with the Jonathan Miller production, whose unvarnished surfaces encourage much-needed operatic immediacy.
Rather than setting the opera in the imaginary mythological world of the original Maurice Maeterlinck play, the John Conklin stage designs place the opera in the era when it was written (1902) with a revolving, constantly shifting network of faded, decaying, fragmentary rooms, seeming to portray different chambers of a Victorian brain.
When the going gets particularly surreal, the scene is portrayed as a dream.
Casting choices represented a promising new generation for this opera. Isabel Leonard was a great vocal fit for the role of Melisande, though her characterization — something much more proactive than the usual frightened-animal approach — will be more fully realized in later performances.
Paul Appleby as Pelleas is less successful, due to a problem that tenors rarely confront: The role is too low.
As in the recent Traviata at the Met, the baritone walked off with the primary vocal honors. In this case, it’s Kyle Ketelsen in his vocally articulate, coiled-spring portrayal of the obsessively jealous Golaud.
The wild card was 69-year-old Ferruccio Furlanetto as the infirm King Arkel: His French enunciation was highly questionable, but who cared in the face of his raging-against-aging King Lear-like moments?
Audience response to the opera was understandably muted — it’s that kind of piece — though Nezet-Seguin had cheers from his first entrance.
That’s a sign of the growing confidence he’s establishing with New York audiences — aided, no doubt, by an amiable profile of the conductor and his partner, Pierre Tourville, this week in the New York Times that celebrated their same-sex relationship.
In the City of Brotherly Love, that news was announced and dispatched way back in 2010, when Nezet-Seguin first signed a Philadelphia Orchestra contract. Then-Mayor Michael Nutter welcomed “Yannick and his partner, Pierre” in front of City Hall, and nobody batted an eye.
They have been a fixture in Philly for so long that we can be forgiven for thinking this recent revelation is like saying, “New York is a city” or, “The Met is a theater.”
Pelleas et Melisande