Simon Rattle leads ‘Pelleas’ in Met debut

Add Simon Rattle to the list of eminent conductors who have made belated debuts at the Metropolitan Opera.

The British maestro, his trademark mop of frizzy white hair bobbing enthusiastically above the orchestra pit, led the company in a revival of Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” on Friday night.

Setting an unusually leisurely pace that stretched the performance, including intermissions, to more than four hours, Rattle drew some magnificent playing from the orchestra. The crystalline textures of Debussy’s impressionistic score stood out with clarity and precision, and the dramatic tension grew steadily as the opera headed toward its tragic climax.

“Pelleas” is a one-of-a-kind work, adapted by Debussy from a play by Maurice Maeterlinck and written in the composer’s style of ever-shifting chromaticism. The elusive score is perfectly suited to the story, a timeless, symbol-laden love triangle about unhappy people trapped in an ominous world of shadow and foreboding.

Most mysterious of all is Melisande, who in the opening scene is abandoned and weeping in a forest. She is found by the much older Golaud, a prince who marries her and brings her home, only to see her apparently fall in love with his half brother Pelleas, another figure of immense melancholy. Goaded by jealousy, Golaud kills Pelleas, and Melisande dies in childbirth, leaving her guilt-ridden husband uncertain whether she had been unfaithful.

For the opera to weave its fragile spell, it needs vocally and dramatically charismatic performers, and the Met production met that test in the three key roles.

Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, who is married to Rattle, captured the look of the lovely, doomed Melisande with her tall, willowy figure. She sang with haunting allure, especially in her unaccompanied song as she sits by her window combing her hair — though when she let it hang down, it was too short for Pelleas to caress as called for in the text.

With his strong, at times achingly beautiful baritone sound, Gerald Finley made Golaud’s transition from tenderness to rage painful to witness. As the wistful Pelleas, baritone Stephane Degout radiated a diffident charm and sang with growing romantic fervor.

There was strong casting in supporting roles, from baritone Willard White as the men’s grandfather, King Arkel; mezzo Felicity Palmer as their mother, Genevieve; and boy soprano Neel Ram Nagarajan as Golaud’s son, Yniold. The latter plays a vital role in the opera’s most disturbing scene, when the tormented Golaud lifts the boy up to Melisande’s window and forces him to spy on her and Pelleas.

The production, by Jonathan Miller, updates the action from vaguely medieval times to an oppressively grand 19th-century manor house and gives us glimpses of numerous members of the household who aren’t in the original libretto. Despite the use of a turntable for quick scene changes, there are seemingly unnecessary delays in both the first and third acts.

Whatever the longueurs of the evening, it was good to see the Met engage Rattle, who is chief conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Under general manager Peter Gelb, the company has opened its arms to a number of famous conductors who previously had not appeared at the house.

In 2008, Daniel Barenboim led performances of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Last season, Riccardo Muti made his debut conducting a new production of Verdi’s “Attila.”