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Magdalena Kožená [Photo © Harald Hoffmann, Deutsche Grammophon]
13 Jan 2016

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican

When, o when, will someone put Peter Sellars and his compendium of clichés out of our misery?

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Magdalena Kožená [Photo © Harald Hoffmann, Deutsche Grammophon]


His doubtless ‘well-meaning’ productions may have reached their nadir with ENO’s The Indian Queen; but we can nevertheless do without a Pelléas et Mélisande which exchanges metaphysics and textual subtlety for EastEnders-style melodrama. The plot really is not the thing here, and it certainly does not benefit from absurd exaggeration. Entirely ignoring the work, Sellars has Mélisande and Pelléas all over each other at an early stage; their kiss therefore counts for little. Arkel seems primarily to be a pervert who cannot keep his hands off his grandson’s wife. Many seem to be convulsed by trembling, indicating ailments about which I should rather not speculate; poor Mélisande’s death is more graphic than any semi-staging is likely ever to attempt again. For some reason, all of this takes place in an environment marked out by multi-coloured neon lights: how Debussyan! And yes, you have doubtless guessed: the lights eventually all go off.

All of the cast throw themselves into Sellars’s bizarre vision with admirable dedication. If it could work, they would have made it do so. One could hardly not respect their artistry, even when, as in Magdalena Kožená’s case, the artist seemed miscast. At her best, she showed up intriguing, twitching correspondences with Kundry. Her flagrantly sexual performance of ‘Mes long cheveux’, however much it adhered to Sellars’s apparent concept, could hardly convince, given the doubtless frustrating presence of the opera ‘itself’. Christian Gerhaher and Gerald Finley both gave ardent performances, Finley’s sadism as Golaud especially chilling; again, though, I could not help but think that, however beautifully he sang, Gerhaher was not ideally cast in the role, or at least in the production. His conception certainly seemed more Romantically poetic than that of Sellars; admittedly, it would be difficult not to be. Franz-Josef Selig gave a wonderfully compassionate performance vocally; what a pity he was saddled with such incongruous acts to perform on stage. Bernarda Fink and Joshua Bloom were both very impressive in their smaller roles too.

I was surprised, especially before the interval, by Simon Rattle’s conducting. There could be little doubting the excellence of the LSO’s performance, although I should have expected Rattle to draw at times softer playing from them. Yet Rattle, whose Debussy has in my experience always been very much Debussy to be reckoned with, too often left phrases hanging, seemingly reluctant to insist upon a longer, Wagnerian line. He certainly brought out Wagnerian echoes, as much of Tristan as of Parsifal, much to the score’s benefit; yet they did not always come together as tightly as they might; it was almost as if he wished to portray Debussy as negatively Wagnerian (that is, an heir to Nietzsche’s ‘greatest miniaturist’). Coherence was greater later on, although I could not really reconcile myself to the almost Puccini-like vulgarity of the climaxes. Surely if there is one thing Debussy avoids at almost any cost, it is playing to the gallery. Perhaps, though, Rattle was, not entirely unreasonably, offering an interpretation tailored to his director’s concept. His 2007 Pelléas for the Royal Opera was nothing like this at all. I hope we shall have chance to hear him — and indeed the LSO — in this opera again in better circumstances.

Rattle spoke movingly at the beginning of his esteem for Pierre Boulez, to whose memory the performance was dedicated.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Mélisande: Magdalena Kožená; Pelléas: Christian Gerhaher; Golaud: Gerald Finley; Arkel: Franz-Josef Selig; Geneviève: Bernarda Fink; Doctor, Shepherd: Joshua Bloom. Director: Peter Sellars; Assistant Director: Hans-Georg Lenhart; Lighting: Ben Zamora. London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)/London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Sunday 10 January 2016.

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