NEW YORK - It is a pity that the wonderful singers in the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" are trapped in Jonathan Miller's 1995 production, which strips much of the magic from this delicate work.
Indoor and outdoor scenes take place in a decayed palace - hasn't this cliche been done too many times?
That said, Jose van Dam, Anne Sofie von Otter, William Burden, Roberto Scandiuzzi and Felicity Palmer combined for exciting singing during Saturday night's opening performance, and Met music director James Levine drew glistening and lustrous colors from the Met orchestra.
Miller's theory, according to Levine, was to have "a place where we don't know what the answer to the unanswered question is. Where the time dimension is ambivalent. Where as you go from scene to scene, you see something that happened before, or something that hasn't happened yet. Or you connect the world of the piece rather to a sort of Proustian world which it was clearly modeled on."
Much of the time, it looked like the action was taking place in a museum awaiting installation of its next exhibit. John Conklin's sets had statue busts on the floor and sheets were draped over what appeared to be furniture.
There were inner sets, which rotated, and outer walls that framed the action. But the absence of water and greenery was jarring, given that two scenes take place at a well in a park and the music conveys the sound of the outdoors. The costumes, largely white and off-white, looked somewhat Victorian.
When Melisande (von Otter) gets lost in a forest, she meets Prince Golaud (van Dam), marries him and goes off to the castle, where the blind King Arkel (Scandiuzzi) presides. She falls in love with Golaud's younger half-brother, Pelleas (Burden), Golaud becomes enraged with jealousy, then stabs his half-brother to death. Melisande gives birth, then dies.
Van Dam's voice may not have the flowing thickness of a decade ago, but the 63-year-old Belgian bass is among the greatest actors on the opera stage and that more than compensates. His Golaud is a father figure to Melisande, portrayed by von Otter as a confused girl who wanders through the opera with a vagueness that matches the score.
Other than van Dam, the primary singers were all taking on their roles at the Met for the first time. Von Otter's mezzo is compelling and her portrayal of a woman lost built toward her inevitable deathbed scene.
Burden's Pelleas was straining to let out his passion until the fourth-act kiss, and Scandiuzzi's Arkel was an ailing monarch trying to keep his family from spinning out of control. Palmer's Genevieve, the mother of Golaud and Pelleas, sang with a gloominess that foreshadowed the action to come.