This welcome recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was made during Barbican Centre performances, as directed then by Peter Sellars. There is a great deal to admire, although it may not appeal to all lovers of this opera: it rather depends on how you view Simon Rattle’s interpretation.
The LSO is admirably clear; the sense of space that is critical to this work – forests, woodland clearings, caves, castle towers, underground vaults as well as domestic rooms is well-captured. From the opening bars the strings have a fullness of tone, with lower instruments underpinning the core – making the most of Debussy’s palette of timbres, reassuring and unsettling in equal measure. The woodwinds, so critical for mood, are well-integrated. The singers have a forward placing, allowing the text to register with great clarity, but do not generally over-dominate the orchestra. The only disadvantage is that one does not always sense the characters are physically located in shadowy places at times.
Rattle has experience with Pelléas et Mélisande in the theatre and veers to a romantic take of the score: not for him the detached almost clinically restrained approach adopted by Boulez. Rather he’s more direct than some, and relishes the huge variety of textures and the sheer headiness of the writing. Some passages have a majestic sweep – notably in the early Acts before Golaud’s jealousy starts to play havoc with everyone’s lives. There is a superb propulsive quality to the conducting, without disrupting the overall arc of the piece – the inevitability of the drama is never in doubt, and the orchestral interludes are particularly rewarding listening.
The male characters are beautifully contrasted in terms of vocal tones. The singers of Golaud and Pelléas are gifted song interpreters as well as operatic heavyweights – this shows in their inflections and vocal colouring. Christian Gerhaher shows why having a high baritone’s tint pays dividends to the role of Pelléas. His timbre is youthfully masculine, airy of tone and he knows how to control dynamics. As Golaud Gerald Finlay offers singing of great intensity and charts the Prince’s nervous disintegration with unerring point. Franz-Josef Selig’s resonantly inky and cavernous tones are a distinct asset – his Arkel is of wisdom and realism, but remains detached from proceedings as so cleverly delineated in Maeterlinck’s text. As with most recorded interpreters of Geneviève Bernada Fink lavishes velvety tone and warmth on the role, making one wish there was more for her to do.
Which leaves the Mélisande of Magdalena Kožená. The voice is ample and full of rich colours, which may be the issue for some. Many interpretations regard the enigmatic Mélisande as a being apart, a blank canvas personified onto which the other protagonists project their secret desires, longings and insecurities. In the various audio and visual records the interpreters incorporate this opaque quality into their vocal assumptions often making the lady rather cool. Kožená provides full-blooded voluptuousness, and therefore Mélisande’s part in the drama is rather more active and knowingly manipulative. So much will depend on how one regards the character.
Mention should also be made of the touching singing of Elias Mädler as poor Yniold, the innocent child used by the adults as sentinel and spy. The London Symphony Chorus does well in its distant contributions. Presentation of the set – an intriguing take on this ever-fascinating work – is with full libretto and English translation. For those with Blu-ray apparatus there is the bonus of the opera being on one disc.