Mélisande and I: Angelika Kirchschlager on Pelléas and Mélisande

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Austrian mezzo-soprano about Covent Garden’s new production of Debussy’s opera…

It was the bass-baritone Walter Berry who played a key role in making Angelika Kirchschlager the artist she is today. They met after Angelika had moved from Salzburg to Vienna where Berry was teaching at the Music Academy. “He was not my voice teacher but the one who, specialising in Lieder and Oratorio, instructed me in interpretation and became my mentor. Of all my teachers he was the most influential both as to my way of singing and as to what I expect from a life in music, what I want to give. Although he was very exact and very strict about how the music should be, it was always performing with heart and soul that was the absolutely essential aspect. He was continually questioning things, looking for the truth, and because of him it has become my goal to do what is really the most difficult thing of all: to sing as honestly and simply as an artist like Kathleen Ferrier did. Performing a piece of music is about the information that we convey through it, and not about the man or woman. In other words it’s not about the postman but about the letter.”

From these remarks you could reasonably suppose that Angelika is drawn less to operas that show off the voice than to those which deal in depth with the human condition. There’s some truth in that, but it’s not the whole story as emerges before we get down to discussing her role as Mélisande in Debussy’s remarkable opera Pelléas et Mélisande (Stanislas Nordey’s production new to Covent Garden has already been seen at the Salzburg Easter Festival with Simon Keenlyside and Angelika in the title roles). The side of Angelika’s work that stands in contrast to this is to be found in the Broadway songs she has recorded and in her stage appearances in such works as Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow. I wonder if this stems from being Austrian but she laughs at this suggestion, not in order to deny it but to refer to her Pelléas in this context. “Simon (Keenlyside) is English you know, but he is even crazier about operetta than I am. But I really love it: there’s so much wonderful music there, music that makes us happy. It deserves singers of real ability because, different as it is from opera, it is in fact difficult to sing well. This autumn Simon and I will be doing a European tour providing an evening of operetta and we’ll probably follow that with an American tour. This country? Well, let’s first see how it works, how people respond.”

This project could be seen as a development that has grown out of the recitals with a standard classical repertory that Angelika has undertaken with such artists as Barbara Bonney and Felicity Lott, recitals that have included duets. In one striking respect these projects differ from the others upon which Angelika has embarked. “I’ve never been one to plan my career. I’m always happy with what I have and I have never pushed myself in any particular direction. I avoid expectations and that makes my life much easier because everything that comes is such a lovely surprise.” But she distinguishes from that the evolution of those programmes with Barbara and Felicity and now with Simon. “In those cases it doesn’t come up by itself. It’s an idea that comes into being when singers like one another and want to spend time together. I think that’s a good reason to start a duo recital, the simple fact that you like each other.”

In the sphere of opera Angelika Kirchschlager cites both Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice, which provided her Covent Garden debut in 2002, and Pelléas et Mélisande as examples of works that just came up. “With Sophie’s Choice I could never have thought of it. I couldn’t know that the piece would be written or that anybody would think of me for it, but it turned out to be so important both in my singing career and for my personal development. However, without knowing Debussy’s opera, I always had Mélisande in mind. I knew the tale of Pelléas and Mélisande, that it was a love story but one a bit strange and difficult to grasp. Even their names seemed to suggest to me lonely figures. Whatever it was, I always wanted to be Mélisande, and when I was offered the role I accepted it without having even heard the music. Afterwards I looked at the score because it’s usually a soprano part and I began to worry if I’d be able to sing it all. But as it turns out the role is perfect and I just put myself completely into it.”

Premiered in 1902 Debussy’s opera may have its roots in romanticism but it was at the cutting edge in being an extraordinary study of human psyche. “It’s never just romantic but about the depths, the dark corners and the complicated connections. For that reason people who prefer to ignore all that just don’t want to see it, but from my point of view that’s life. Indeed in my particular philosophy, death, love and life are strongly interconnected. When Mélisande who is married to Golaud meets his half-brother Pelléas for the first time, I feel that something changes in her and that that change will remain with her until her last breath. When those two talk everything that is said has a double meaning, or rather it only has one meaning but double in the sense that the words they use are never direct but substitutes. It’s also a work full of symbolism, most famously there’s Mélisande’s long hair which gets caught in the bushes and which she later lets down. This hair is her life, it’s more or less herself: when she opens her hair she opens herself and there’s the long piece in which Pelléas sings about her hair. It is the most sensual scene that I know, and even more so when it’s obvious that it’s not just her hair that is the subject. I’ve seen productions in which the Mélisande had such long hair that she could hardly move and that’s just distracting and inelegant. I’m glad that in this production by Stanislas I have a very limited extension to my hair. Instead here and elsewhere he gives you a lot of space to think and to put your own imagination to work.”

Angelika is clearly very taken with this production even beyond the opportunity it gives her to sing with Keenlyside and with Gerald Finley (the production’s Golaud) and to work again with Sir Simon Rattle who conducted Sophie’s Choice also. “I love this production’s approach to Mélisande and would not want to play her in any other way. She’s no weeping, weak girl but someone with a huge soul, a very strong character even if the society she is in prevents her from living out her strength. In Act Four there’s a large orchestral interlude after the scene in which Golaud pulls me by the hair. That music is so painful, so emotional, and just one example of the importance of the orchestra in this work. In this production we watch Mélisande at this point. She’s in pain as she has been before, but she refuses to give in to it and to the people, especially the men, who have inflicted this on her. Very slowly we see her get up from the ground and stand. That’s my favourite scene in the entire opera.”

Finally we move the focus of our talk to Golaud and to Pelléas and Mélisande together. Of Golaud Angelika says: “He’s Mélisande’s opposite and his fear makes him a very poor human being. What he sees in Mélisande’s eyes is evidence that she has life in a way that he does not and, later in Act Five, there’s a scene that always gives me goose-bumps: it’s the moment when he observes how Pelléas and Mélisande look at each other and it’s apparent that he can’t bear it because he knows that this is what he himself will never have.” As for the lovers, the opera holds back their open acknowledgement of their love until very late on. Prior to that, the true state of their feelings has been communicated only indirectly in the Pinteresque use of words that on the surface mean other things and directly through the unique sound of Debussy’s orchestral palette.

Angelika, however, brings her own experience of life to bear in interpreting the opera’s central relationship: “What happens when they are together is that they discover that then their souls are completely relaxed. They don’t have to be anything that they don’t want to be. They can breathe, they can laugh, and each recognises this shared ease. If you can find that then it means that you can be yourself and be accepted for who you are regardless of those aspects that may seem strange or difficult even to yourself. That is to be with somebody who can take that and who will be on your side. When that happens I think we should call it love and that’s what you have in this relationship. She’s just breathing in every word that is said to her and I don’t think that there’s anything stronger or more intimate than what is experienced here by Pelléas and Mélisande.”

  • The opening night of Pelléas et Mélisande is 11 May 2007 at 7.00 (19 May at 6.30 p.m.) and runs until 23 May
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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