I can only imagine that Simon Rattle, when asked “which is going to be your next operatic project with the Berliner Philharmoniker?”, consults Herbert von Karajan’s discography. Although Karajan sometimes opted to record some of his performances made live with his Berliners with the Vienna Philharmonic, that was not really the case with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. His recording with Frederica von Stade and José van Dam is both famous and controversial, but the truth is that he never performed the work with the Berlin Philharmonic in concert or in the opera house, but rather did it in the Vienna State Opera with Hilde Güden and Eberhard Wächter in 1962/1963. His successor in Berlin, Claudio Abbado, also chose to record it with the Vienna Philharmonic with Maria Ewing and again José van Dam after performances in the Austrian opera house. Therefore, the name of the present music director is connected to the performance history of Debussy’s only opera – since 2006 the Berlin Philharmonic has only played it under his baton.
Karajan is accused of “germanizing” the opera in the above mentioned orchestra-oriented EMI recording, but I would not say he disregarded the composer’s efforts in avoiding Wagnerism at all costs. That recording could be rather fittingly called “Brahmsian” in its large scale and gravitas. Rattle instead begs to differ. How often one sees a child so determined to behave differently from his parents only to realize in the end that he is more similar to them than what he would like to admit? The fact that Debussy had Wagner as a “non-model” on writing Pelléas et Mélisande only meant that Wagner was in his thoughts while he wrote it – this seems to be the concept of this evening’s performance in the Philharmonie. Although I am not really a fan of Sir Simon’s, I do admire his intent of thinking things anew, even if this sometimes involves things going really astray.
I would not say that this evening went astray. Every little aspect in his performance was coherently informed by his Tristan-esque concept and rendered expertly to this purpose. The Philharmonic sounded its fullest, deepest and richest, responded to the conductor’s demands on increasing intensity adeptly and excelled in tone coloring. Act V, in particular, showed febricity enough to make the delirious Tristan in act III tame in comparison. As my 9 or 10 readers might be guessing by now, I do not subscribe to this concept. Some designs made in blue look just vulgar in red. The multilayered demi-tintes conceived by Debussy exposed to this coruscating approach sounded just like Mascagni without the catchy tunes to my ears, especially when the cast, having to compete with the full glory of the Berliner Philharmoniker, most often than not had to sing at full powers and – in the central tessitura preferred by the composer – would mostly sound overpowered.
To call this a staged performance may seem at first an exaggeration – director Peter Sellars made it almost exclusively by lighting effects, the only props here being a letter and a platform right in the middle of the stage. He explored all spaces available in the hall (some of them quite invisible to large parts of the audience); the remoteness also made some of the singing hard to hear under these circumstances. Mr. Sellars too does not believe in demi-tintes – his approach is a bit on the telenovela side. For him, this is a domestic abuse tale. Mélisande cannot help her sexuality; Pelléas is a nice chap in a high-testosterone groping way; Golaud is a psychopath, but it is not his fault: his father is a dirty old man and his mother is absent-minded. Here, the hapless title-couple kiss at the first opportunity, are quite graphic in the tower scene, Arkel molests the pregnant Mélisande, who is kicked in her belly by Golaud, who couldn’t care less about her condition. This might make things a bit too clear for those who were not getting in the first place – but if you come to think that Debussy took the pains of writing the scene in the castle’s souterrain just to suggest that Golaud is threatening Pelléas without actually saying anything, having the cuckold pointing a knife at his brother makes the whole detour pointless, isn’t it? Again, if I disagree with the concept, it does not mean it wasn’t expertly done – the Personenregie was utterly convincing, all singers placed in each scene to optimal dramatic and aesthetic results and fully in grasp of the meaning of each gesture.
Although this evening’s cast is what one would call “glamorous”, I have the impression that a Wagnerian approach would ideally require a Wagnerian cast. I mean it- I always wondered about the possibility of hearing some like Régine Crespin, Tatiana Troyanos or Jessye Norman as Mélisande – particularly when you have a loud and powerful orchestra on duty. Although Magdalena Kozená is the opposite of Wagnerian, her Mélisande (with whom I was acquainted from a broadcast from Paris with Marc Minkowski) was ideally sung in absolute clarity of text and line and, by the way of perfect focus and bright tonal quality, very easily heard. Her approach is extremely artless and direct, what does not exactly goes with the circumstances. Sylph-like bell-toned Mélisandres seem to be the default for this role, but I plead guilty to my preference for Maria Ewing’s powers of suggestion of making you wonder what she is aiming at by saying Si, si, je les ferme la nuit… Christian Gerhaher (Pelléas)is a singer with fondness for the emphatic and the underlined. Prompted by the bombastic direction and the grandiloquent conducting, he sometimes made me think of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau’s Scarpia in Lorin Maazel’s recording. But that is me being mean – he has very clear French, handles the text with hallmark care of a Lieder singer and is comfortable with the high tessitura. But he is no Stéphane Degout. Gerald Finley is a paragon of perfect technique and musicianship, not to mention that his French sounded perfectly idiomatic to my non-native ears. He is a very amiable guy, though, and the demands of having to seem wild and dangerous involved some barking, distortion of line and parlando effects that I found a little distracting. Bernarda Fink was an expressive Genieviève, comfortable in this contralto emploi, but I’ve found Franz-Josef Selig far more persuasive in the context of Charles Dutoit’s subtle performance in Tokyo one year ago.