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2006-04-08, Salzburg Easter festival, Pelleas et Melisande

Pelléas et Mélisande


Composer : Claude Debussy
Librettist : A slight alteration of Maeterlinck’s tragedy
Venue and Dates : Salzburg Easter Festival
Large Festival Hall
April 8 and 17, 2006


Conductor : Sir Simon Rattle
Director : Stanislas Nordey
Stage set : Emanuel Clolus
Costumes : Raoul Fernandez
Lighting : Philippe Berthomé
Performers :

Mélisande : Angelika Kirchschlager
Geneviève : Anna Larsson
Pelléas : Simon Keenlyside2006_Pelleas_Salzburg_Braille
Golaud : José van Dam (April 8); Laurent Naori (April 17). (Gerald Finley was originally cast.)
Arkel : Robert Lloyd
Un Médecin: Guillaume Antoine
Yniold : Soloist of the Tölzer Knabenchor
Un Berger : David Bizic
Berliner Philharmoniker
Rundfunkchor Berlin

Notes: Coproduction with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London




Two members of the audience have very kindly written their thoughts on the production for us:

Click here for: Petra’s review of Pelleas et Melisande, Salzburg 2006

Click here for: Glynnis’s review of Pelleas et Melisande, Salzburg 2006

Salzburger Nachrichten, 5. 4. 2006. Debussy-Oper bei den Osterfestspielen.

Translation below


Debussy-opera at the Easter Festival. Translated by Ursula Turecek

Karajan’s Festival with the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle from 8th to 17th April.

Salzburg. On Saturday, 8th April the 40th Salzburg Easter Festival will start. The beginning of this Festival, founded by Herbert von Karajan in 1967, is traditionally made by an opera, this time it is Claude Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” (the SN/Wild photo shows Mélisande – Angelika Kirchschlager, Pelléas – Simon Keenlyside). This masterpiece of the lyrical Impressionism will be repeated at the Grosses Festspielhaus on the 17th April…

Stanislas Nordey will stage Debussy’s great opera, but not in naturalistic style with castle, garden, woods and fountain in the park but in “stylised and very poetic pictures”, as Michael Dewitte, manager of the Easter Festival explains. Simon Rattle, the art director of this Festival, will conduct.


Salzburger Nachrichten, 10. 4. 2006


Translated by Ursula Turecek


When Simon Keenlyside, the Pelléas of the Salzburg Easter Festival 2006, answered the first question we asked, which was well prepared in English, we found out to our delight that the singer speaks German too. “I have got time but not language!” he joked.

Simon Keenlyside comes from a musical home. His father and grandfather were violinists. He says he has no special models. “I’ve always heard my favourite singers.” Keenlyside was a choirboy at first.

He has a special relationship to Salzburg because he attended a language school in Franz-Joseph-Strasse. During the conversation we had in the Festival’s “Schüttkasten” some days before the first night he called himself a “singing but bad pupil”. As he had practically no possibility to sing, but during this time he practised in a forest at night. Finally he plucked up courage and introduced himself to a professor at Mozarteum who looked after him afterwards.

The singer feels that he has no preferred places to perform. It’s always a matter of the people and of the “now”, of the momentary presence. Every work of art is a mirror that shows men and their problems if you look into it.

To the question how to get an engagement Keenlyside answered that as a young singer you have to audition very much, later you have connections and a manager. As Pelléas is a tenor part and he is a baritone he auditioned for Sir Simon Rattle because he wants to sing the part at home later. At home in England because the performance is a co-production with the Covent Garden Opera in London.

Another part the baritone deals with at present, and that he also sings at the Vienna State Opera, is the name part in Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd”. Keenlyside also reported that he is singing the part of Pelléas for the last time because at 46 he is beginning to feel too old for this kind of role.




Wiener Zeitung, 10. 4. 2006 (Reinhard Kriechbaum).


Translated by Ursula Turecek

Mysterious as everyone

Salzburg: Claude Debussy’s opera “Pelléas et Mélisande” under Sir Simon Rattle at the Easter Festival

In “Pelléas et Mélisande” countless myths and original subject matters are molten: Music lovers will see paraphrases from “Parsifal” and “Tristan” first of course but beyond that in every subordinate clause, in every pictorial phrasing of the libretto there are allusions to all kinds of things that make the theatre’s blood circulate from the ancient drama on. But for the most part they are only clauses, associated echoes. If you want to proceed to deciphering within this thicket of lateral references you will almost inevitably become entangled in the symbolistic underwood. Or as Debussy said about Maeterlinck: The poet was one “who expresses things only half and allows me to graft my dreams upon his”.

Geometric altars

Woe betide the director loading additional dreams here ! The tidying and clearing of the stage is always a good method for “Pelléas et Mélisande”. Robert Wilson’s light-ciphers were a well-tried means in the last Salzburg production of Debussy’s work (at the 1997 Summer Festival). Now, for the Easter Festival, Stanislas Nordey (director) and Emmanuel Clolus (stage design) have been looking for a Concept Art-like solution. Clolus built cuboids about eight metres high, cases that may be opened like winged altars. Geometric forms and writings glow forth. In the tower-scene red dresses are to be seen, Mélisande in the middle of them. Billowy projections at the side of the stage stand for her falling hair. What the French director – until the third act at least – succeeds in is avoiding approaches between the characters and illustrating that the drama is happening to a large extent in their heads. Expectations of each other are wishful thinking, projections of emotional conditions. Sadly the outward appearance is not retained in the performance (which is a co-production with Covent Garden). In front of transparent walls glowing in crimson the play gets more concrete. But thus the conventional operatic gesture approaches too.

The final tableau – Mélisande’s death – becomes a public act in front of a semicircle of dummies. This is when you wish back the more unobtrusive commentary of the case-pictures. Important in “Pelléas et Mélisande” is a solution for the interludes: The huge blocks are manoeuvred on stage and this happens in an elaborately musical way, to the point with the right chord, with the right change of timbre. The accurate lighting also supports the music’s effect immediately. There is no need for a fountain or lake, says conductor Sir Simon Rattle. All of this is drawn in the orchestra already. The director takes this seriously. Mélisande stretches her arms down into the orchestra pit when she wants to reach for water…

The main parts are actually played by Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in this evening. The strings’ basic tint is above all interesting for Rattle, the timbre is fashioned in colour very carefully. Rattle takes a lot of time for this priming on which the wind’s “drawing” shows to advantage all the better. It’s above all this new way of emphasis that one remembers – a well prepared canvas onto which the actual motifs, as plastics or in silhouettes, are applied subtly and with charisma.

A conversation piece

Let’s mention some brilliantly developed flute solos by Emmanuel Pahud as an example of this. When Mélisande and Pelléas dance off at the beginning of the second act, this finds a meaningful analogy in the orchestra. For dreary words instrumental rays of hope flare up, hope is undermined by dreary violas and cellos: Rattle itemises how Debussy codified his own interpretation of the text. This opera’s entirely particular speech-singing wants redeeming for a start. The young English tenor Simon Keenlyside brings along this disposition for eloquence and clear pronunciation. This – still – marks José van Dam too. With these two singers but also with the memorably articulating Robert Lloyd as King Arkel this performance becomes a “conversation piece” with lasting effect. The scene where Arkel, against better knowledge delivers his monologue on the beginning of a new world and on the upcoming yielding of the shadows, is haunting. Keenlyside also conveys communicatively that Pelléas becomes aware of his feelings for Mélisande in tiny steps.

Angelika Kirchschlager is Mélisande, or more precisely: She makes a huge effort to be Mélisande. She is a woman full of spirits and somehow she came across as unduly domesticated, vocally too during the first night. You feel and hear that she would like best to run off – and yet she has to stand still as a being “at the edge of moonlight” as the text has it once. Something is wrong with the charisma here. At times the mezzosoprano had to struggle severely with the heights on Saturday.

A great scene when jealous Golaud questions his son Yniold closely wanting to hear from him how Pelléas and Mélisande treat each other during his absence: an impressive achievement of a soloist from the Tölzer boy’s choir.

Sad clowns

King Arkel says in the first act that we „always see only destiny’s reverse” and he says about Mélisande at last that she was “mysterious as everyone”. This absolutely goes with the costumes, even if they seem a bit curious at first for people who “take shelter on the shadowy side”: Everybody, except Melisande dressed in red, is a whiteface clown. They wear wide trousers that emphasise the haunches. They sometimes come across as ridiculous in their destiny. What’s of more weight is the fact that they are gained by melancholy even in moments of hope. And that is exactly the mentality of the whiteface clowns.

Musically brilliant.


Der Tagesspiegel, 10. 4. 2006 (Christiane Tewinkel).


Translated by Ursula Turecek

Three colours cold

In Salzburg Simon Rattle saves Claude Debussy’s “Pelléas and Mélisande“ from abstraction.

Black white red are the colours of this production, black and white for an aestheticism gone astray, red for the last reminders of life that are left in Claude Debussy’s “Pelléas and Mélisande” on this evening. When the curtain rises in the Festspielhaus in Salzburg and the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle sound the first notes, slow as turtles, like from a far away aeon, conjuring with seething sounds a world that rises from an abyss, when finally Angelika Kirchschlager as Mélisande is visible and José van Dam as Golaud who lost his way while hunting – there are no trees to be seen on stage and no spring where crying Mélisande is sitting and does not want to tell at all what happened to her.

A row of towering granite blocks instead. On the empty projection screen of these slabs the oneirically encoded events of this musical drama, composed in 1895 and revised for years, might develop perfectly, this story of jealousy between Mélisande and Golaud and his half-brother Pelléas who will fall in love with the found-and-lost one and therefore will be stabbed to death by Golaud.

But this is not to be. Mélisande, all in red, begins to talk to a man who costume designer Raoul Fernandez has dressed like all the other protagonists in fantastic white glittering with sequins. And that this Golaud is standing at many metres’ distance when he is singing “I am looking at your eyes, do you never close your eyes?” – this suggests too soon a production that will not produce any closeness and least of all intimacy the whole evening long for fear of the many tributary wounds of Maeterlinck’s standard text and of the unresolved parts of this fairytale- and legend-like symbolist drama.

Director Stanislas Nordey and his stage designer Emmanuel Clolus prefer abstraction for this co-production with the Royal Opera House London. It is almost as if they wanted to give the Wagner-antipode Debussy a leg-up and avoid by all means everything that could suggest sledge-hammer sound-painting or leitmotifs. Or as if they tried to cure the downright indecently well-to-do Easter Festival audience and the rambling host-town right from the beginning of everything ornate, picturesque, or what is more, of all pictorial nonsense.

It’s not a fountain into which Nordey makes his Mélisande bend and lose the ring Golaud gave her, but the orchestra pit. He has the heavy granite blocks move about, then open triptych-like. A glistening light is shining and showing from within: always new, always designed to perfection in the same agonisingly cool way. Even the strongest moments are channelled through the apparatus of sterility by Nordey. For instance Golaud lifts little Yniold up so that he may tell him what Pelléas and Mélisande are doing inside the chamber and behind them the lovers are glued to the tritypch’s inner wall, silent waxworks sitting opposite each other in the empty white room.

Sure enough the singers, the orchestra and finally Debussy’s nervously meandering music succeed again and again to rise above the events on stage. In Kirchschlager’s superb Mélisande, who will go astray and start up like Mignon. During the scene at the window when the little, brave, courageous Tölzer boy reports hysterically to his stage-father van Dam who acts sedately at times.

Nevertheless it would have been more beautiful without the stage. By and by the ear almost cannot help surrendering to the superiority, no: to the steady sub-eriority of the visual. It barely conveys how brilliantly Kirchschlager knows to deal with Debussy’s speech-singing. Simon Keenlyside is a Pelléas with an exquisite timbre whom you gladly listen to, Anna Larsson with her softly shaded mezzo an Amazon-like competent Geneviève. Robert Lloyd’s seigneur-like Arkel, the warm baritone of Guillaume Antoine’s doctor, finally the Philharmonic’s infinitely subtle-nerved and vivid performance under Rattle whose curls gleam like the silverback of a secret alpha dog trying to contrast the inanimateness on stage with as much inner uproar as possible. What remains is a production that for some strange reason does not hurt: Because it deafens the senses completely.


Raunchy Melisande Startles in Salzburg Easter Festival Staging By Shirley Apthorp for Bloomberg.com, 11 April 2006


Melisande, so often a waif in a nightgown, gets a sexy red dress in the Salzburg Easter Festival’s new production by Stanislas Nordey of Debussy’s enigmatic opera.

In this “Pelleas et Melisande,” Golaud and his relatives, the doomed royal family of Allemonde, all wear identical white Pierrot costumes. They move through a black, timeless space, past giant gray boxes which open like books to reveal bold illustrations in black, white and red. There is no attempt at realism. No props, no furniture, no sea, castle, pond or gate.

Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck’s text is a masterpiece of ambiguity and subconscious innuendo. When Pelleas sings of tying Melisande’s long hair to the branches of a tree, we do not need to see either the hair or the tree. They are, in any case, not what he is really singing about.

But Nordey’s cool symbolism provides no real alternative to a traditional show. The members of this dysfunctional clan fascinate for their differences. To iron them out and present them as so many icy clones without any depth or character is to remove most of the tension from the piece.

Melisande, child-woman, princess, lover, mother, liar and mystery all at once, is one of 20th century opera’s most bemusing heroines. We never discover where she came from; she dies without a cause. Golaud marries her, but Pelleas loves her. Her simple utterances are equivocal. The family is torn with grief, riven with strife and doomed. Death is omnipresent, darkness a constant companion.

Nordey sees Melisande as the precursor of Lulu and Carmen, a femme fatale, more vamp than victim. She seduces both Golaud and Pelleas, and it is her will power that drives the action forward. Angelika Kirchschlager is lithe and willowy in clinging scarlet, a Melisande who can look the part.

Kischschlager’s singing, too, is a touch raunchier than is common in this role. Yet it’s not an interpretation that sits comfortably on the piece. Take away the probable purity of the heroine and you lose the bittersweet tragedy of the piece.

Boyish Melancholy

Simon Keenlyside is a quintessential Pelleas, with just the right mixture of simplicity and eagerness, with an undercurrent of melancholy. Gerald Finley should have sung the part of Golaud, but was indisposed.

Jose van Dam is as luxurious a replacement as any house could hope for, though vocally graying with age. The sound remains solid, the technique formidable but the top is frayed. There’s an exceptional Yniold from the Tolz boy’s choir, a treble with musicality, a body of tone color and dramatic skills well beyond his years.

Simon Rattle and his Berlin Philharmonic come into their own when the second half gathers in dramatic momentum, the full weight of their immense collective force making shattering climaxes. With their growling depths and mellow tone, they can do dark and dangerous like nobody else.

It is the first half, with its shimmering light and filigree mystique, that fails to take off. Rattle is too busy exposing structures and sharpening points to let the sound ease over and the mist swirl. Where it should be intoxicating, it sounds pedantic.

Still, the opening-night public applauded appreciatively. With top ticket prices at 470 euros ($533), they should.

From Austrian news network, ORF.

Translated by Ursula Turecek.

“Pelleas et Melisande” opens the Easter Festival

Exultation for everybody including the director at the end – Claude Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” that opened the 40th Salzburg Easter Festival yesterday evening was celebrated as a success all along the line.

Simon Rattle, Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and artistic director of the Easter Festival, director Stanislas Nordey and his congenial team Emmanuel Clolus (stage) and Philippe Berthome (lighting) and last but not least an excellent cast of singers with Angelika Kirchschlager (Melisande), Simon Keenlyside (Pelleas) and Robert Lloyd (Arkel) presented an altogether aesthetically exemplary, if occasionally a little static opera.

Praise for the soloists

From the musical point of view there is nothing to criticise. Rattle conducted attentively, accurate in every detail and caught tempi, dynamics and phrasing to the point. The Berlin [Philharmonic] followed him as if they had played nothing but opera the whole year long.

The soloists proved an ensemble excellently attuned to each other, among which Kirchschlager, Keenlyside and Lloyd, as well as a stunningly mature soloist of the Tölzer Knabenchor who was not mentioned in the programme, have to be singled out.

Three-part altars

Nordey confined himself in his production to the direction of movements, sometimes geared only to the forestage but sometimes also placing a minimalistic and clever emphasis. On the other hand he left the huge space to the aesthetically terrific stage design by Emmanuel Clolus who commented the twelve tableaus of this anti-Wagnerian classic psychologically.

Three-part altars, grave as visions, offered more than a mere setting for this abstract psychological study in white and red, the most striking shortcoming of which was doubtless the rather absurd costumes. But altogether a convincing and deserved success for all the participants.


Salzburger Nachrichten, 10. 4. 2006 (Karl Harb).


Translated by Ursula Turecek.

From an audio picture-book

The first night of Claude Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Festspielhaus on Saturday carried weight. The stars are the Berlin Philharmonics.

When Herbert von Karajan opened his Easter Festival in Salzburg exactly forty years ago, the event went right from the beginning by the name of Berlin Philharmonic. Never before had this deluxe orchestra “served” in an opera house and accordingly Karajan, every inch the magician of sound and assisted by the open space of the Großes Festspielhaus, at that time seven years old, could position his orchestra as the protagonist for Wagner’s “Ring des Nibelungen”. So his antithesis to Bayreuth then also referred to the unique Bayreuth mix of sound as it is placed as an inimitable “carpet of sound” at the singers’ feet there by the invisible orchestra. In Salzburg the Berlin Philharmonic should be the star, the orchestra the opera.

Forty years later it still is and the incomparable effect of this ensemble shows to advantage more than ever in this year’s opera production that had its obligatory first night on Palm Sunday and may be experienced here only once again, on Easter Monday. Sir Simon Rattle backed Debussy’s drame lyrique “Pelléas et Mélisande”, premiered in Paris in 1902, unimaginable without Wagner but at the same time opening the genre of opera to modernity. In five acts a fairytale-like, mythic love triangle develops between the widower Golaud who finds the girl Mélisande in the woods. He unites with her but Golaud’s half-brother Pelléas falls in love with the new wife and when she loses her ring out of carelessness in a fountain the tragedy of jealousy takes its course.

A lesson in a most subtle orchestral culture. Debussy’s musical means do not produce an operatic fire in the conventional sense. He sets Maurice Maeterlinck’s text in a novel, prosodic style. The word itself becomes music, the singing becomes melodious declamation, singing recitation or reciting singing. Thus a huge vocal-orchestral lineament, with manifold shading in itself, comes into being, a stream of endlessly flowing musical sound. It’s not an exterior plot that advances the story. Neither does the orchestra deliver a foil for vocally artistic excesses. It’s rather an incessant entanglement that matters: The orchestra becomes the medium of plot and character and explains the inornate vocal lines that are yet drawn with utmost subtlety.

Here Rattle allows the Berlin Philharmonic to be completely in their element. The five acts add up to a lesson in incomparably subtle orchestral culture. The musicians suggest the forest and the fountain, the castle and the grotto, love, passion, jealousy and death. They play all situations and stations, this life and afterlife of a decaying, lifeless society coloured by a “stranger”, in fantastically beautiful colours and with a matchless transparency. Raoul Fernandez’s costumes emphasise this: padded, stiff garments for the whiteface clowns at the circus for the society of Allemonde, a simple red dress for the “outsider” Mélisande.

Simon Rattle moderates and controls the diversity of subtle movements, mixes the values on an almost inexhaustible orchestral palette and makes the opera a symphonic drama (or a dramatic symphony).

On this precisely but also alterably graduated ground the singers’ speech melody (and the melodic language) is able to develop to the best advantage. Angelika Kirchschlager sings her first Mélisande with beguiling charm at the border between simplicity and maturity. She has bright colours and vocal modulations at her disposal to express childlike joy, unconcern, fear, danger, longing, resignedness into destiny and finally a transcendency at the transition from life to death and to attest all of this in a wonderfully natural way with a minimum of gestures, looks, turns of the head.

Simon Keenlyside is singing his last Pelléas production without resorting to stereotypes. He employs his bright voice flexibly and with heroic grounding where this is demanded without any coarseness at all. This results in an altogether plastic, vocal profile of vivid clearness.

Clinking singers in a strictly composed production. As a steadfast personality José van Dam, standing in only for the first night for Gerald Finley who fell ill, has a dimension all his own. This baritone does not seem to have lost any of his presence or of the vocal volume naturally at his disposal it seems, his sustainable, exact and articulate pronounciation or his musical expression and clear diction during his long career as Golaud.

Robert Lloyd acts the role of King Arkel powerfully, Anna Larsson makes one listen attentively in the small part of Genevieve and the Tölzer soloist as the child Yniold has a distinctive vocal and stage presence.

Director Stanislas Nordey arranges a powerful picture-book of fairytales from changeable cubes in the first three acts. His stage designer Emmanuel Clolus has created strong, additionally suggestive “installations”, with Philippe Berhomé’s lighting, for each side. The fourth, the most dramatic act takes place in front of graduated, crimson, abstract paintings and culminates in the murder of Pelléas; the finale illuminates the young mother and dying Mélisande on a chair, surrounded by hallstand dummies in white costumes and by the “remainders” of Allemonde, incapable of emotions. The production gives signals. Certainly Robert Wilson could “stage” this more artfully, Klaus-Michael Grüber more minimalistically. But Nordey’s strict work absolutely has a consistent attitude in its measured “static movement”. And the stars are the Berlin Philharmonic anyway.


Hugh Canning, Sunday Times

Music: After a fashion. Simon Rattle’s Pelléas is big on looks but low on drama.

”Even if Covent Garden audiences won’t experience the Berlin Philharmonic in Debussy’s only completed opera, they will at least see and hear Simon Keenlyside’s still gloriously sung and played Pelléas, Angelika Kirchschlager’s limpidly sung Mélisande, and Robert Lloyd, still authoritative as the blind (though not in this production) old king, Arkel. The Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, close to Keenlyside in years, should have made his role debut as Golaud, but was replaced at a fairly late stage by the veteran José van Dam, probably the most experienced and admired Golaud of the past 30 years, but now looking and sounding old enough to be Keenlyside’s father rather than his elder half-brother. Van Dam walked through the staging, so maybe we will have to wait until Finley takes on the role at Covent Gardenbefore a final judgment is made.

I won’t be holding my breath, however, for, on this evidence, Nordey seems primarily interested in setting up stage pictures — sets by Emmanuel Clolus, couture by Raoul Fernandez — that would undoubtedly look the last word in designer chic in, say, the pages of Vogue or Wallpaper magazine, but make for an evening of catatonia in the theatre. Some of Nordey’s tableaux look beautiful — in the tower scene, Mélisande is perched amid rows of red dresses identical to the one she wears throughout — but they do not add up to a dramatic interpretation of an opera that we know, from Richard Jones’s harrowing Opera North/ENO version or Graham Vick’s Glyndebourne production, can be the most disturbing tragedy of a dysfunctional family destroying itself. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher — an operatic subject initiated but abandoned by Debussy — clearly resonates in Pelléas, but it doesn’t register in these chichi surroundings.
Nordey’s principal idea is to dress Mélisande as a “scarlet” woman — a highly questionable proposition anyway — while the royal household of Allemonde wear white clown uniforms, as if they are all on their way to a circus-themed fancy-dress ball in memory of Liberace. This is catwalk opera, dramatically null and meaningless. The giveaway is Keenlyside’s almost balletically agile Pelléas, wonderfully sung. Here is a singer-actor who has it all. At least he will be worth watching and listening to at Covent Garden next May.”


Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 10. 4. 2006 (Peter Hagmann). http://www.nzz.ch/2006/04/10/fe/articleDQQY8.html

Translated by Ursula Turecek

A victory of vitality

Debussy’s «Pelléas et Mélisande» at the Salzburg Easter Festival.

The piece starts very gently and very slowly; and when the violas take on the theme from the cellos at the second attempt and later the first bassoon joins in you realise this as a slight change of colour at best, because Simon Rattle at the rostrum of the Berlin Philharmonic proceeds so sensitively, carefully, lovingly in “Pelléas et Mélisande”.  And he goes on like this for the whole, not exactly short evening, which however does not mean that the orchestra makes do with discreet commentaries. It rather plays the main part, but it does so in a way that nobody on the stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg would have to feel pressed.

Dark and light

On the basis of this year’s opera production of Salzburg’s Easter Festival you may experience how Simon Rattle has changed and developed. Compared to the version of “Pelléas et Mélisande” shown in Amsterdam in 1993 and produced in cooperation with Peter Sellars, his view of the score has become more exact, his grasp more radical – and the Berlin Philharmonic who have their grand entrance here offer everything to him that he may wish for. They are a German orchestra, not a French one; with their dark, basic tint-sound they move the piece closer to Wagner than may have suited Debussy. This becomes particularly evident in Golaud’s entrances which are furnished with exceedingly menacing colourings by the bassoons, the cornets and the trombones. This is exactly right for José van Dam who took on the part at short notice but interprets it masterly out of his rich experience; on this orchestral grounding he can draw Golaud’s entanglement worthily – and thus every note hits home, every word is articulate.

But it’s not because of this that the suggestions Debussy received in Bayreuth would be well to the fore – Rattle and the orchestra do pay as much attention to the bright sides of this music, like the carefully produced blurring of the outlines. The high strings, the flutes and the oboes mingle subtly and this creates the manifoldly lit, richly gradated field of sound where the tender love between Pelléas and Mélisande can develop. And this couple is cast magnificently. Simon Keenlyside does not only speak impeccable French, he also interprets the part downright vehemently – but without ever using vocal force. With his bright timbre and the easy production of sound, the British tenor, if coloured absolutely a little in the direction of a baritone, seems to be almost perfectly cast, while Angelika Kirchschlager comes across as rather extravagant. Although Golaud accuses her of childlike naivity again and again, her Mélisande is more mature both vocally and in her performance: a pensive, inapproachable stranger oppressed with a past put under taboo, who abandons her distance only little by little – this is performed gorgeously too. On the same level the veteran Robert Lloyd as King Arkel and Anna Larsson in the part of Geneviève.

Thus musically there prevails the most colourful life you can imagine; in contrast, the stage backs strict stylisation – with what the constellation delivers being more or less the contrary of what the structurally thinking conductor Pierre Boulez and director Peter Stein observed in 1992. However, the cool scenery that Stanislas Nordey had created for his production is far more convincing than the naturalism to which Stein resorted then. Emmanuel Clolus blocks the stage with mighty, dark cases that suggest the forest around the castle Allemonde. For each location one of these cases is opened, respectively bringing to light a blindingly white, totally symbolist, cast triptych: the lovers’ names in braille for the scene at the “Fontaine des aveugles” where Mélisande “looses” her wedding ring, cushions with a bloodstain for the following tableau. Raoul Fernandez’s costumes obey this approach too; the occupants of the castle Allemonde come along in white, fluffed up overalls that make visible the rigidity.

From white to red

All of this has such a stimulating and plausible effect that we may forgive the director for particular moments of inconsequence. In the evening’s second part, in the piece’s fourth and fifth act, where the cases are discarded and all of a sudden plain areas prevail and the very red that Mélisande, as the only character on stage wearing it.  As a matter of fact the stranger’s energy, love, feeling and devotion have invaded the imprecated castle so that even erratic Golaud is able to suffer tears. And here it is not death that crows over love; Mélisande’s child is wearing her mother’s colour and in the end what remains is the colour red– a victory of vitality.


Berliner Morgenpost, 10. 4. 2006 (Manuel Bug)

(This review was also published in „Die Welt“ on the 11th April 2006.)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

In the noble Debussy-boutique

In Simon Rattle’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” in Salzburg only the singing protagonist couple is a sensation

Beside Christmas it’s particularly Easter – from Fabergé to Kinder-surprise – that is the main season for unwrapping. But French minimalist director Stanislas Nordey does not make his stage designer Emmanuel Clolus’ workers take oval things onto the stage of the Salzburg Easter Festival but boxes hatched in grey. In nearly every tableau one is opened – like the flap of an Advent calendar – and behind it there are things that on the whole double, in a banal fashion, what Maurice Maeterlinck’s libretto of Claude Debussy’s only accomplished opera “Pelléas et Mélisande” is talking about.

Such pretentious frippery of requisites does not explain, it simply decorates: the display of a boutique à la Debussy, minimalistically noble but devoid of matter. Raoul Fernandez’ costumes for this co-production with London’s Covent Garden Opera follow this course too: a sinfully red cocktail dress for the outsider Melisande who is discovered as a cattish being by Golaud (monotonously solid: José van Dam) in the forest of blocks. He and his half-brother Pelléas as well as the remaining dozing family at the castle Allemonde wear Pierrot-costumes glittering with spangles. But with the clowns there comes a huge yawn.

It is true, Stanislas Nordey, highly esteemed in France, delivers – as was to be expected – pictures that may be arbitrarily explained and never really be pinned down; together with a direction of the characters that does not condescend to do more than retell in a most economical way, with singing manikins isolated far apart in space. But with this he is intellectually above the majority of directors gathering around the fixed star Karajan in what is now 40 years of Salzburg Easter Festivals. By the way, the next one in this category, Stéphane Braunschweig, is already ready for the “Ring”-project that sure enough will appear in Aix-en-Provence each summer first appearing during the next four years.

But the huge disappointment is Simon Rattle. He conducts Debussy on Prozac lulling along as a dozily tranquilizer. It is true, he does wake up and get wild in the last two acts just as Nordey now tries his luck with areas of colours that glow in a dingy red and then glide away in a stagy fashion and with Melisande surrounded by empty clown-costumes, sitting and thus negating her terminal illness only as a metaphor. But here the heavenly length of this work that is as subtle as it is prim takes revenge. Tension does not arise any longer, only lines of sound are meandering, executed far too clearly and played by the Berlin Philharmonic immediately and accurately, without any mystery but with noble staleness. It does not compare to Rattle’s dramatically charged version full of scalding hot tension with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in a Peter Sellars production in Amsterdam 13 years ago. Today it only sounds neutral and somewhat uninterested.

The rest of the ensemble, Anna Larsson’s mother Geneviève, Robert Lloyd’s royal grandfather Arkel, is mediocre for Salzburg(exception: the clear-voiced, present Tölzer boy as Yniold). But fortunately we have to announce a sensation: A delightfully terrific pair of singers that acts in a completely internalised way and is simply perfect. Simon Keenlyside is in his acting and in his singing an ideal, as shy and playful, naive and knowing Pelléas to whom his half-brother’s wife means more and more, finally becoming his fatal destiny. His bright baritone flows freely and euphonically, every word in perfect French is a pleasure. The wonderfully acting Angelika Kirchschlager is developing a somnambulistic but also defiantly flaring eroticism, mezzo-velvety, yet pure; passion burning over a low flame that on the whole cannot warm the evening. But the fatal attraction of these two for once does not remain an operatic proposition.


Standard, 10. 4. 2006 (Ljubisa Tosic).

Translated by Ursula Turecek.

Removed from reality into the story-book of life: Mélisande (Angelika Kirchschlager), unattainable for Pelléas (Simon Keenlyside) in the white clown’s harem pants – staged by Stanislas Nordey at the 40th Salzburg Easter Festival.
Diffidently skimming through opera’s book: First night of Claude Debussy’s opera “Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Salzburg Easter Festival. While the musical side of the evening was convincing, director Stanislas Nordey did not succeed in equalling his sometimes haunting pictures with a consistent direction of the people.

Once upon a time there was a fervent Wagner-fan, a pilgrim to Bayreuth who, as it sometimes happens, finally came to the conclusion that it was time – for a certain distance. The admirer turned into a sceptic commentator who thought to have traced an error on his pilgrimages. The musical dramatist Richard Wagner, according to composer Claude Debussy, had been thought to be opera’s dawn while “old Klingsor” actually had been a sunset, a last point. And even if we hear easily the harmonic phantoms of Tristan and Parsifal haunt his own hit, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, in points, this work is doubtless a poetic demonstration for how things could go on after Wagner.

Debussy creates the space of an ambiguous musical theatre with declamation and suggestion ad infinitum in it. It is a recitation with notes that is predominant here, and the fairytale-like drama ensnares an orchestra practising an ambiguous magic of colours, making the unconscious become sound and retiring completely at certain points. At the moment of the declaration of love for example. Altogether this mixture of statics and subtlety of delicate gestures means a lot of beads of perspiration on the brow of every director who wants to enliven them on stage. And arguably even more so if he has the rather immodest dimensions of the Großes Festspielhaus at his disposal.

Director Stanislas Nordey makes an abstract approach at the beginning of the Easter Festival. He has the huge space filled with some cubes (stage: Emmanuel Clolus, lighting: Philippe Berthome) that are pushed about and finally emerge as a book.

Only clothes

As soon as it is opened, we see that here it is the art of duplicating things that provides enlivenment. When Mélisande has flowers in her hand they are to be seen a thousandfold in the book. When Golaud (impeccable performed by José van Dam who sang the part under Herbert von Karajan in 1978, standing in for Gerald Finley who fell ill) talks of a wound, a lot of pillows with bloodstains are to be seen.

And at one point Mélisande herself is hanging on the page, Pelléas beneath her, and she is to be seen amid a landscape of 38 red dresses. Later bloody walls will dominate instead of pages and volatilise gradually – until in the end duplication is declared again. We only see the clothes of the dead, poniarded Pelléas. But twentyfold in exchange.

The characters in this book-staging nearly always act at the forestage. But the organisation of their gestures slips into completely ordinary forestage-theatre too often. What’s artificial in the characters, their irreality that is emphasised in a comical way by the costumes (Raoul Fernandez creates a mixture of uniform and clown-costume), neither is consistently worked through.

Mélisande, delineated as a stranger clearly from the other characters in their white “inflation trousers” by her red dress, is by all means to be excepted from this reproach. Here the direction succeeds in an artful alternation between the distinctive statuesque and an agility culminating in the final love scene in which the erotic tension discharges expressively and the tragic couple quickly rolls on the floor before jealous Golaud proceeds to action and stabs Pelléas to death. As Melisande, Angelika Kirchschlager is completely herself, thus an intensive performer and a singer capable here of poetic intensity even in subtle passages with delicate timbre.

Good ensemble

At the end she simply sits there, lost in reverie, around her a strange society that could have been dealt with by means of scenic stylisations. It was not to be. In addition to Kirchschlager we will remember – from the scenic point of view – a few beautiful book-illustrations. And the vocal achievement of the ensemble: There was nothing wrong with the singers’ vocal performances. Simon Keenlyside (as Pelléas), Robert Lloyd (Arkel), Anna Larsson (as Genevieve), Guillaume Antoine (as Doctor) and Michael Timm (as shepherd) keep a high standard throughout the evening.

The Berlin Philharmonic under conductor Sir Simon Rattle opalesces elegantly in a subtle, refined revival of structures whose character was not reduced to picturesque euphony. At exposed points a sharp contrast is sometimes placed, here the well disposed orchestra takes the main part and lays bare the score’s layers dramatically and meaningfully.

This was a kind of prelude, acclaimed not in a particularly euphoric way but without protest, because from next year on it will be Wagner’s turn for four Easter Festivals……..


Wiesbadener Kurier, 10. 4. 2006 (Werner Thuswaldner)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Magical events in abstract space: Strong prelude to the Salzburg Easter Festival with Claude Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”.

Love, jealousy and death – „Pelleas et Melisande“, the French composer Claude Debussy’s only opera relates to these motifs. Simon Rattle opened the Salzburg Easter Festival with Debussy’s lyric tone poem at the Großes Festspielhaus. The audience responded with great approval to Stanislas Nordey’s production with a strong ensemble around Robert Lloyd, Jose van Dam, Angelika Kirchschlager and Simon Keenlyside, supported excellently by the Berlin Philharmonic under conductor Rattle.

The French director Nordey found a clever, convincing concept to transfer the intimate play-like plot that is sustained by few characters onto the huge stage of the Festspielhaus. He avoids every realism and together with stage designer Emmanuel Clolus and costume designer Raoul Fernandez he places the magical events in abstract rooms.

Huge dark cuboids are pushed and turned on stage by men in black costumes. The cuboid in the centre opens like a monumental book or else like a winged altar out of which quasi-steps the story. What reveals itself here is diversified and manifoldly fashioned. At one point symbols are to be seen, then characters, the words “Pelleas” and “Melisande” begin to shine. The enigmatic Melisande even appears as a little figure in the huge book herself.

Melisande who is found by Prince Golaud in the woods and taken to the Castle Allemonde is the only one dressed in red. The castle’s occupants in contrast, old Kind Arkel, the half-brothers Golaud and Pelleas and their mother are dressed up as white-face clowns to whom in their sphere is always assigned the serious part. Thus Melisande appears as an intruder in a world strange to her where she never gets to feeling at home. She does marry Golaud but the relationship remains cold while the affection between Melisande and Pelleas grows. The jealous Golaud kills his half-brother, Melisande dies.

Just as in the text of the symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck there is not a word too much and the portents of a fatal end get ever more dense, the direction of the characters’ movements is economical and calculated. Passionate emotions seem to have been removed. But surely they are only suppressed with formal discipline for they erupt all the stronger momentarily. The most soulful sympathy is shown by Robert Lloyd’s (King Arkel) warm sounding bass. Jose van Dam standing in for Gerald Finley who fell ill, brings his rich experience with the role of Golaud to performance and vocal expression. The bright, vital Simon Keenlyside contrasts with him effectfully. Angelika Kirchschlager is the perfect Melisande, present as singer and performer on one hand, on the other hand coming across as otherworldly and unseizable. Together with the excellently disposed Berlin Philharmonic Sir Simon Rattle made Debussy’s richly coloured texture of sound shine. He accompanied the proceedings with all reticence but also showed the score’s immediate expressivenes to advantage again and again.


Review in Spanish by Stefano Jacini for Il giornale della musica, 9 April 2006

Click below for English translation by Alexander Martin


“The part of Pelléas is played not by a tenor but, as can sometimes happen, by a baritone, the excellent Simon Keenlyside, who has a velvety voice and fascinating presence. “

“Pelléas”, a real work of art.

By Christian Merlin, in Le Figaro, 11th April 2006.

Translated by Jane Garratt

Pelléas and Mélisande an opera presented by the Easter Festival in Salzburg, conducted by Simon Rattle, and produced by Stanislas Nordey.

Since Gérard Mortier staged the Bob Wilson production, one knows that it is possible to play “Pelléas” on the huge stage of the Festspielhaus in Salzburg without harming the intimacy of the piece. Recruited after the defection of Luc Bondy to fill the gap in the 2006 Easter Festival, Stanislas Nordey has not allowed himself to be intimidated by the gigantic space: he is concentrating on the rigour of his theatrical work.

To help him, his designer Emmanuel Clolus has produced a real work of art, structuring the space without trying to fill the void at any cost. In the first three acts huge cubes manipulated by the stage crew change from an adventure playground to match the feel of the orchestral interludes. In the centre, one among the others opens like a huge book, giving the appearance in every scene of a symbolic image for the scene in question. Hundreds of pages of white paper hastily sketching letters to read, blood stained ears for Golaud’s injury, Mélisande’s dress reproduced 39 times in the tower scene.

One rediscovered the pre-classical spirit of the theatre, in the absence of realistic decoration, a single prop or a sign was enough to evoke a world. In the fourth act, a line of blood red boards, with black streaks in the style of [Georges] Mathieu, places the action under a fateful sign, thanks to the subtle lighting of Philippe Berthomé. From this point of view this is a masterwork.

A dazzling light.

Theatrically, if one feels a certain coldness as often with Nordey, in this production that was intentional, as shown by the costumes of Raoul Fernandez. All the inhabitants of Germany wear the same baggy, white, clown trousers, with sequins. Only Mélisande is distinguished by her red dress: not only is she not of their world, but she is the only human in a world of automata. This overturning of normal ideas, by the style of dress, is ideally characterised by Angelika Kirchschlager; for her first Mélisande, she becomes a sensual and instinctive being, a true wounded animal who stays strong in adversity. The Austrian needs to improve further her spoken French, but the rôle suits her bright mezzo well, allied with a vocal dynamism which avoids all insipidity. Even cramped in his strange uniform, Simon Keenlyside is the living personification of Pelléas, vocally and dramatically; maybe he will renounce his intention to abandon a part in which he will remain credible for a long time.

Replacing Gerald Finley at short notice, José van Dam doubtless hardly had time to apply the ideas of the producer, but he brings all his experience to the role of Golaud. In even better condition than in the Bastille production of 2004, he once more arouses limitless admiration for the skill with which he internalises his character. A lovely Arkle from Robert Lloyd, whose strangely laryngeal (nasal?) vocal production is in the service of the light; Anna Larsson’s Geneviève is lacking, she contents herself with making a big noise.

It is sufficient to listen again to the recording of Pelléas by Karajan, a magic spell of blended tones, to measure how far the Berlin Philharmonic has become a different orchestra. Simon Rattle, takes a radically different approach and he defends this with a fascinating force of conviction. His direction does not play the card of the unspoken, or the hazy change, but that of a dazzling clarity, cutting, the orchestra makes itself harsh, violent, menacing, even if that means covering the voices here and there; and if its attack without vibrato could seem to lack heat, it is a true ice fire which burns our ears.


Extract from a review by Larry L Lash for Opera News, June 2006

“…The production succeeded only in its casting, highlighted by three of the finest lieder singers of our time, assuring performances of great depth and communicative power. Simon Keenlyside is a simply perfect Pelleas: passionate, impetuous and guileless, sung with extraordinary nuance. His declaration of love, in head voice, was barely a whisper; his description of the seaside cave as “full of blue darkness” conveyed all, when the stage showed nothing.

Melisande is an ideal fit for Angelika Kirchschlager: the role lies largely in the middle, most lustrous part of her voice (the top is showing signs of strain and dryness); her performance, sensuous and caressing, underscored every word of Maeterlinck’s poetry.

Jose van Dam remains a handsome Golaud (subbing on a week’s notice for the ailing Gerald Finley), showing honeyed, cello-like tone thirty-five years after his Festival debut. What he can do with two words such as “la joie” is a lesson in singing, and the tears in his voice as he begged for Melisande’s forgiveness were unforgettably gripping. Robert Lloyd’s stillsonorous, midnight-black bass made for a touching, vulnerable Arkel, who delivered the closing monologue with eloquence.”


Extracts from a review by Hugh Canning, Opera Mag, July 2006

“… Nordey’s conception of the female title role as a scarlet woman was one of his more questionable idees, as was the idea of costuming the Allemonde royal family in a sort of white clown’s uniform adorned with silver sequins, as if they were all en route to a circus-themed fancy-dress party in memory of Liberace.”

“At least there were compensations in the musical performance: Rattle is one of the finest Pelleas conductors around right now and the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic, while lacking a certain French transparency and textural piquancy, was magnificent. Rattle finds more light and shade in Debussy than Karajan ever did from this band, even if occasionally one thought one was listening to Wagner-one of the interludes is a conscious tribute to the transformation music in Parsifal. It was unfortunate that Gerald Finley’s illness forced him to cancel his debut as Golaud; his replacement, the veteran Jose van Dam, looked (and, to be brutally frank, sounded) old enough to be the father of Simon Keenlyside’s still youthful Pelleas, rather than his elder half-brother. Van Dam had enough voice to suggest why he was one of the great Golauds of recent history, but he wandered through the production listlessly with an expression of disdain or indifference which spoke volumes.”

“Keenlyside’s Pelleas was gloriously sung and the only figure on stage who looked like an animated human being rather than a stuffed dummy. He will certainly be worth encountering again in London, in what he says will be his last run in the role. Angelika Kirchschlager’s limpidly sung and idiomatic Melisande was excellent, as was Robert Lloyd, still authoritative as Arkel…”

Opernwelt June 2006 (Gerhard Persché)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

At the sad clowns’ circus

Simon Rattle conducts, Stanislas Nordey directs Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Salzburg Easter Festival

Pagliaccio* never was a laughing matter, but here he particularly is not. Having the knife in front of himself like an erect penis he unstoppably approaches Harlequin, striking the inevitable, fatal blow. Ma la commedia non è finita. Red Columbina’s slow death is still to come, hardly realised by her in her sharply limited autistic awareness. It’s finally assigned to the old man, a Pantalone in white, to build the bridge into the future.

Are we in the wrong piece? The clown costumes up there on the Festspielhaus’s widescreen-stage make you suppose so. But we don’t see a palimpsest of Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” but Stanislas Nordey’s production of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Salzburg Easter Festival. The white clowns are all from the extremely sad circus Allemonde: Grandfather, mother, brothers, boy, doctor. Only the girl Mélisande, this strange and assumedly casual being whom the outside world, past, present and future apparently pass without a trace, remains in the outsider’s colour of red for the whole evening. Mélisande, different for once, painted not glassy in a pre-Raphaelite way but in red as the colour of blood, of love, of life ?

In Simon Rattle’s dramaturgic plan the score may support such an interpretation. Pierre Boulez comes to mind who in an important essay on Debussy’s opera vehemently refuses the opinion that this music is rather vague, formed by fragile, static structures of sound. No, no realm of suggestion, of uncertainty, of sickly glimmering morbidity. No dream in the dawn: “With Debussy the ideas of poetry’s secrets, of dream only become important if they are achieved by precision and in full daylight; in this way he is similar to Cézanne who gave his landscapes their secret quality by light and objectivity.”

Rattle seems to orientate himself in Salzburg now by such Cézannesque perspectives. He bans every twilight, everything that is spongy, approximate. In fact he contrasts this music’s eternal circling that appears to be looking for a standstill and its ambivalence that communicates itself in the movement of whole steps, with a clear theatrical dramaturgy that does not balk at a jubilating upsurge, a piercing pain, the cool light of day. The concept of the moment and of the whole, both miniatures of sound and large arcs, instant and eternity, as it were, are harmoniously balanced. The Berlin Philharmonic needing some time to empathise comes across as a little surprised by this music’s breathing clarity. But they quickly find each other for a convincing interpretation.

In which the vocal artists succeed too – mainly in musical respect. In the beginning Angelika Kirchschlager’s vocally intensive Mélisande holds her hands in front of her face in a strange gesture, possibly to demonstrate her autism; but one could also think that she simply wants to close her eyes at the boring operatic clichés in Nordey’s direction of the characters that assume an air of significance but nevertheless are insignificant. José van Dam who stood in for Gerald Finley at short notice sings this Golaud with elegant aplomb as he has done for decades. Sure enough, he now appears to be Pelléas’s paternal rival rather than his brother; therefore Mélisande’s turning to the younger also comes across like an erotic rescue. Simon Keenlyside’s Pelléas stands absolutely in the – as has been noticed accurately once before – the melancholically shaded French barytenor tradition, holding definite traces of a Werther, for example, but also of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (whom Keenlyside sang at Covent Garden).

But why the clowns? Nordey’s sad circus leaves questions unsettled. Why Mélisande’s red? Is the secret of her flight perhaps dubious, is she Lulu’s sister in a way? (Mélisande’s relatedness meets in the autistic attitude of both characters: Both rub “the sleep from their eyes only in the afterlife” as Karl Kraus observed for Lulu). Or perhaps a relative of the murderous protagonist from Schönberg’s “Erwartung”? Richard Jones tried to work this perspective out in his exemplary production of the piece. Does not “Pelléas et Mélisande” also hold a workaday drama alongside the myth that seems to be lacking these very mythical qualities (Boulez) – as Graham Vick for example implemented in Glyndebourne seven years ago when he placed it in some sort of Villa Hügel**?

Nordey eludes the answer. With some good will one may interpret some thing or other into the production, for example into the scene of the murder with Golaud and Pelléas, like we did at the beginning of this report. But on the whole this production has the demands and the aesthetic quality of window dressings – after all with some chic-ness (scenography: Emmanuel Colus [sic], costumes: Raoul Fernandez). This applies mainly to the decoration blocks in the first part that are strung like Stonehenge’s cuboids, opening one after the other like triptych altars and displaying illustrative objects – endless rows of letters for Geneviève’s “Voici ce qu’il écrit à son frère Pelléas” for example. Or – the best image – Mélisande’s red dress, cloned multiplicately; in the centre the girl herself, ready to drop her hair. Sure enough only symbolically. Like her death with her hands raised towards the stage sky. Spotlight off. Rather insignificant if it was not for the redemptive close of wise and powerful Robert Lloyd as Arkel and Simon Rattle’s wonderfully clear echo from the pit.

* The clown in Commedia dell’arte

** Villa Hügel is a villa in Essen, built for the family of the industrialist Krupp and with interiors similar to these stage settings.



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