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2007.06.18 Crescendo on Pelléas et Melisande

Crescendo, 18 May 2007

Axel Brüggemann

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Rattle’s feeling for frankness

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After yesterday’s performance of “Pelléas” at Covent Garden, I met the two singers of the title roles today: Angelika Kirchschlager and Simon Keenlyside – both of them had read the current “Crescendo” and before we came to the actual subject of our conversation, their projected operetta album, we first talked about the past of big voices like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Anneliese Rothenberger and Brigitte Fassbaender who enunciated their opinions on opera today in the last issue. They are all idols, also for Keenlyside and Kirchschlager, because they represented two qualities of singers that find each other only rarely today: technical perfection and high emotionality.

We also talked about conductors – about the masters of yore and the time-beaters of today. Many of them were afraid that their shop will come apart, said Kirchschlager, that’s why you’d find conductors who simply beat the time more and more often – hoping that they would not drown. A big exception was Simon Rattle, both of them agreed on this.

He provided spaces for the singers where they could interpret by their own responsibility, where they could take interpretation into their own hands. He could afford this because he’d listen in everywhere and he’d pull the strings himself again when anything went wrong. It was this faith in the singers that many conductors today were lacking.

And actually yesterday’s performance of “Pelléas et Melisande” was well worth listening to. With the Royal Opera House Orchestra, tuned to melody and loveliness by Antonio Pappano, Rattle succeeded in something he had not succeeded in with the Berlin Philharmonic for quite a while: an operatic evening all of a piece. He opted for the impressionist whirr and kept it up for nearly four hours without breaking out of Debussy’s endless non-melody. A Beckmesser might review this conducting as too one-dimensional, too direct and too “beautiful” – but finally it excelled through exactly what Rattle’s last performances and recordings lacked: a musical idea, not a contrived philosophical or musically historical one.

He abandons eclecticism and effects for effects sake. Everything was a dazzling, sultry whirr and, yes, maybe the reason actually was that he was standing in front of an ensemble of singers in whom he could utterly trust: Kirchschlager as playfully transcendent Melisande, Keenlyside as deliberately fragile Pelléas with a character baritone – in addition Gerald Finley as gloomy Goland [sic] with self-doubt, Robert Lloyd as lovely sage Arkel and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as feisty mother Geneviève.

In London this revival from the Salzburg Easter Festival with a different orchestra was received not only benevolently, but euphorically – Simon Rattle’s feeling for whirring as well as Stanislas Nordey’s production. And that’s what is really shattering. The Guardian cheered that the aesthetics would make this work accessible also to operatic laymen. Maybe this is true – but what actually is made accessible when the huge green stage boxes are turned in every interlude and opened in the end, and Nordey (stage setting: Emmanuel Clolus) claws his way from one pretty setting to the next without touching the dimension of the persons’ psychology even rudimentarily? What remains is: a nice evening at the opera at the end of which stands the jaunty dinner or drinking of champagne. As beautiful as Philippe Arlaud’s dream world in the Bayreuth “Tannhäuser”. Opera that does not want to be anything but be beautiful, a stage from the retort of style, without edges and angles. But that’s what hides behind Debussy’s music: A psychological drama of apocalyptic human excrescences. None of this at the stage of the Royal Opera House. Here everything remains nice.

Before writing a review you try to check your arguments – if they will hold out against the review of the review, you try to take the counter-position. And in fact it seems to be a key question of operatic aesthetics that separates the cheering choir and the critic. It is no coincidence that the Guardian recommends this production particularly to operatic beginners – precisely because it is so beautiful. But actually I think that opera does not have to be beautiful – mostly must not even be beautiful. Keenleyside [sic] said so in our conversation today: “Who goes to the opera to relish it does so for some other reason than me. I go to the opera to be bemused, to set thoughts in motion.” And Kirchschlager assisted: “You have to come out differently than you went in.”

It seems to be a British (American) modernism to reduce opera to its aesthetics, to its pure beauty. The question that remains is if directors really hit the core of this art with this point of view. I fear that no: The opera’s real modernity is due to the fact that it still arouses, that under the music’s subversive disguise that gives it an aesthetic shape, it mostly tells about human abysses. Abysses that should become visible in the production and not get hidden or covered up (don’t mistake me: I too can do without radical, forced political new interpretations – but the scandal can also be a thing of simply telling what is written in the score!). In the end a production like Stanislas Nordey’s leaves you cold after all – and it does so despite of a splendid musical interpretation.

Productions like this seem to separate opera in Germany from opera in the rest of the world. France, England and the USA animate opera as an institution of beauty, try to affirm it in its modernity by making fashion and style resonate, whereas German (and some British) directors refer exactly to the scores’ pre-determinated breaking point and do not understand opera in the first place as an art of beauty but as an art of ambivalence – or put differently: For them beauty accounts for ugliness.

And that’s why the “Pelléas”-evening in the end was well worth seeing after all: Because Kirchschlager as well as Keenlysinde [sic] and all the other singers did not dwell on beautiful impressionistic singing but brought the musical soul into the stage’s aesthetic surface and into Rattle’s polished conducting – they used the freedom that the conductor had let them have. And this reminds of the generation of great old voices who always took the liberty to narrate, to rouse, and who set the depth of emotionality against the perfection of technique (beauty). In this spirit the baritone Keenleyside [sic] and the mezzo Kirschschlager [sic] are also a counter-model to the soprano-tenor-duo Netrebko and Villazón. But that is a different story.

For today it is enough to emphasize that Rattle should make music with exceptional artists like them more often because then his acknowledged goal as a musician could also add up: that everyone can learn from and live on the other’s inspiration.

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