In the gray depths of a New York winter, it was an aptly gray couple of days at the Metropolitan Opera.
First, on Thursday, the opening of a revival of the company’s bleak, brooding double bill of Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” and Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” inspired by black and white film. Then, on Friday, Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” which, in Jonathan Miller’s staging, runs the visual gamut from slate to putty. Drab weather, outside and in.
But the sense of grayishness in the “Iolanta”/“Bluebeard” pairing — and in “Pelléas,” for that matter, almost at the end of its run this season — extended past the designs. Both operas were populated with intelligently, earnestly emoting singers whose voices were often unable to put across a strong sense of character or drama.
“Iolanta,” a fairy tale about a princess whose blindness is cured by love, is a tricky piece, quivering between tender delicacy and robustly tuneful grandeur. In his Met debut, the conductor Henrik Nanasi didn’t yet seem in control of this balance, and the score felt merely mild, without the feverish vividness Valery Gergiev brought to the company’s performances in 2015.
The soprano Sonya Yoncheva was an extraordinary Iolanta when I heard her sing the role in Paris three years ago. Her presence is still sensitive and soft-grained, if less specific and moving than in 2016, but her voice has grown less dependable. Its slender clarity has taken on a more pronounced flutter; her tone feels narrower and harder, yet also fainter.
That she doesn’t summon the surging phrases of her duet with Vaudémont, the prince who falls for her, means that her victory doesn’t come fully to life; the opera’s stakes remain lukewarm. While I cherish the moments she underplays — her aria after her blindness is revealed to her (it’s a long story) is a wistful monologue, not a vocal showcase — Ms. Yoncheva’s pale Iolanta means a pale “Iolanta.”
Alexey Dolgov, a late replacement for Matthew Polenzani as Vaudémont; Alexey Markov, as his friend Robert; and Vitalij Kowaljow, as Iolanta’s father, King René: All good, the rest of the cast also never quite summoned coloristic richness. The bass Harold Wilson was very fine — secure and resonant — in the smaller role of Bertrand.
The double bill’s director, Mariusz Trelinski, slyly creates connection between “Iolanta,” with its triumphant ending, and the grimly pessimistic “Bluebeard,” a Symbolist drama about a very fraught honeymoon.
There are some scenic parallels, and the final beat of his “Iolanta” staging darkly suggests that King René — who has kept his daughter hidden for years, ostensibly for her own good — is of a piece with Bluebeard, whose desire to control a series of wives takes a homicidal turn.
While a virtuosic and difficult orchestral assignment, “Bluebeard” is also, in a way, more straightforward in mood than “Iolanta,” and in the Bartok, Mr. Nanasi more confidently elicited fluent, flexible playing, the winds slithery but strong.
In Angela Denoke and Gerald Finley, the Met has cast two perceptive singers as Judith and Bluebeard. Neither strained nor sounded ugly, but neither could summon the power to project over a seething orchestra. The result was a performance more politely eerie than properly harrowing.
It should be noted, for those planning evenings with lovers, that the run of this double bill ends on Feb. 14. What could be a more pleasant outing? “Kiss me,” Bluebeard orders his wife, not long before she drifts into the underworld: “No more questions.” Happy Valentine’s Day!