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2007, London ROH, Pelleas et Melisande

Pelléas et Mélisande


Composer : Claude Debussy
Librettist : A slight alteration of Maeterlinck’s tragedy
Venue and Dates : Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
11,14,16,19, 21 and 23 May 2007
Conductor : Sir Simon Rattle
Director : Stanislas Nordey
Set designs : Emanuel Clolus
Costumes : Raoul Fernandez
Lighting : Philippe Berthomé
Performers :

Mélisande : Angelika Kirchschlager
Geneviève : Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Pelléas : Simon Keenlyside
Golaud : Gerald Finley
Arkel : Robert Lloyd
The Doctor/a shepherd: Robert Gleadow
Yniold :  George Longworth (11, 14, 16) / Tom Norrington (19, 21, 23)
Orchestra and Chorus of The Royal Opera House

Notes : Co-production with the Salzburg Festival


From the ROH website

Simon Rattle conducts, leading international interpreters bring the enigmatic characters alive, all in an important new co-production with the Salzburg Easter Festival: Debussy’s deeply haunting opera Pelléas et Mélisande – one of the greatest of 20th-century masterpieces – receives lavish attention from The Royal Opera this Season. This will be your last opportunity to experience in the theatre Simon Keenlyside’s internationally acclaimed portrayal of Pelléas, while Angelika Kirchschlager as Mélisande, Robert Lloyd as Arkel and Gerald Finley as Golaud combine to make for a truly inspirational cast.

Debussy’s music combines with Maeterlinck’s play to form fluid, intricate patterns of impressions, suggestions and suppressed emotions that evoke this distant setting of Allemonde, its king and its court. Concealment, evasion and silence prove revelatory as events unfold. The beautiful and sorrowful Mélisande, veiled in mystery, marries Golaud, but falls deeply in love with his half-brother Pelléas. The blind King Arkel senses the tragedy of destiny that surrounds his grandson’s new wife, but is unable to prevent its fulfillment. Stanislas Nordey’s new production uses striking modern tableaux, the symbolism of colour and the drama of light for a 21st-century insight into these timeless undercurrents of the human heart. A dream-like setting, intoxicating sound and dream casting – but a very real indulgence and pleasure.

Click here for more about this production: Interviews with Gerald Finley, Angelika Kirchschlager and Simon Rattle

Click here for a personal review by Glynnis Rambaud

Rehearsal shots

(ROH programme)


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Extract from a review by Dominic McHugh for musicalcriticism.com


The serious disappointment of the production is considerably lessened by a nearly exemplary musical performance. The Royal Opera could not have fielded a more perfect cast for these performances. Angelika Kirchschlager is a delicate but passionate Mélisande; Gerald Finley an outstanding Golaud, portraying the character’s bewilderment at the unfolding events; and Simon Keenlyside both heroic and lyrical as Pélleas, his impeccable French reminding us too of his exceptional linguistic skills. Arkel is the perfect role for Robert Lloyd at this stage of his career: Debussy wanted the character to represent autumnal tenderness and Lloyd delivered this with his customary intelligence. Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Geneviève) overcame her demeaning costume thanks to her strong projection and careful declamation of the text; it was good to have Jette Parker Young Artist Robert Gleadow back on the stage after an absence of some months, as the shepherd and doctor; and boy chorister George Longworth almost stole the show as Golaud’s son Yniold.

Occasionally, more pace from Simon Rattle in the pit might have helped to overcome the impossible tediousness of the production, but otherwise this was the most sensitively and imaginatively conducted production of the current Covent Garden season. To bring such beauty out of the orchestra whilst allowing the singers to be heard easily is no mean feat, and Rattle’s careful attention both to Debussy’s word-setting and the more existential elements of the score was a wonder to behold.

BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the opera on 9 June at 6.30pm. It’s probably the most effective way of getting the best out of this run of performances.


Andrew Clements for The Guardian, Monday May 14, 2007


Four out of five stars

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande resists unthinking attempts at dramatic naturalism. Its world is as far removed as could possibly be imagined from the Italian verismo works with which the score is exactly contemporary.

No one could accuse the Royal Opera’s production by Stanislas Nordey, first seen at the Salzburg Easter festival last year, of taking that literalist route, though. Nordey and his designers (Emmanuel Clolus did the sets, Raoul Fernandez the costumes) have come up with a symbolist production of what is arguably the greatest masterpiece of the French symbolist movement. It may be too chilly and detached for some tastes, but it is elegantly beautiful and dramatically consistent. With a cast of this quality, together with Simon Rattle’s outstanding conducting and the gorgeous orchestral playing he obtains from the ROH orchestra, it makes a gripping theatrical experience.

There are few specifics in Nordey’s production, which begins and ends with Mélisande alone on a bare stage. She wears a red evening gown, while all the members of the dysfunctional family she so mysteriously enters are dressed in white satin, with sequinned tunics and pantaloons, like Elvis in Las Vegas. For three acts, the set consists of giant screens that open as display cabinets to reveal symbolic objects: handwritten letters, bloodstained pillows, identical red dresses. These are replaced after the interval by flats stained blood-red, the only colour other than black and white the production allows.

Such economy leaves the drama and emotion entirely in the hands of the protagonists and the conductor. Rattle plays his part fully; he gives a gorgeously rendered account of the score, detailed and dramatically acute. A succession of perfectly placed chords, a winding woodwind line or a single potent phrase regularly fills in the meaning the text has left unspoken, and the singers are supported wonderfully.

Simon Keenlyside’s boyish Pelléas, growing poignantly to self-awareness in the fourth act, and Gerald Finley’s wracked, grizzled Golaud are both outstanding. Angelika Kirchschlager’s Mélisande is wonderfully sung, though not quite dramatically right – too sophisticated, too knowable, in an opera in which nothing can be taken at face value.

The rest of the cast are superb, too: George Longworth’s wonderfully self-possessed Yniold; Robert Lloyd’s grave Arkel, the only moral force in an amoral world; Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s Geneviève, caught in the midst of this domestic hell. Pelléas et Mélisande’s stature as one of the greatest of all operas is never in doubt.


Keith McDonnell for musicomh.com

Two out of four stars


Only the superb musical direction under Sir Simon Rattle prevents the Royal Opera’s new production of Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande from being an unmitigated disaster.

First the good news. The orchestra of the Royal Opera play Debussy’s hauntingly mesmeric score under the inspired baton of Sir Simon Rattle with precision and languidity, and in the process conjures up an orchestral palette as vibrant as it is kaleidoscopic.

Because of its subtlety and consistent understatement, Pelléas is a very difficult opera to bring off in the theatre, yet Rattle indelibly makes his mark on every bar, and for that we should be grateful, otherwise this evening would have sunk into ignominy for the Royal Opera.

The production, if you can call it that, was imported from last year’s Salzburg Festival where it received a critical drubbing. It’s not hard to see why, as this was more of a non-production of Pelléas and Mélisande. Indeed it had all the trappings of a concert performance by any other name. I would like to be able to explain the whole melee in great detail but the whole staging left me flummoxed – and if you have all the protagonists dressed in the same ‘clown’ outfits from start to finish (apart from Melisande who sports a red evening dress) surrounded by dreary conceptual ‘scenery’ then Pelléas and Mélisande turns into what seems like a very, very long and turgid evening in the opera house.

Stanislas Nordey’s production managed to sap the lifeblood out of this wonderful work and present each scene as a tableau of navel-gazing philosophising where all emotions become internalised – and in doing this turned all the singers into mere ciphers.

In the famous scene where Melisande stands at her bedroom window and lets her hair down, she stands in the scenery (Emmanuel Clolus) surrounded by dozens of dresses, identical to the one she is wearing. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

And why Pelleas, Golaud, Arkel, Genevieve and Yniold all wear the same Pierrot/clown outfit is beyond me.

Enough – as far as I’m concerned, this wasn’t an opera production at all. Time and time again I hankered after Richard Jones’ gut-wrenching Opera North/ENO staging or Peter Stein’s epoch-making production for the Welsh National Opera, as I sat through this mindless farrago at the Royal Opera.

In the circumstances it was nigh impossible for any of the singers to project any sense of character across the footlights, so they are to be lauded for their considerable efforts.

The finest singing of the evening came from Gerald Finley as Golaud, who managed to put across all the inner torment and jealousy of the character by voice alone, which was no mean feat. Angelika Kirchschlager sang sensuously as Melisande but Simon Keenlyside sounded out of sorts as Pelleas – but then can you blame him? Young George Longworth was the best Yniold I’ve ever seen, and there was reliable support from the veteran bass Robert Lloyd as Arkel. The audience cheered the singers and conductor to the rafters, and booed the production team. A discerning audience if ever I heard one.

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Not Your Father’s Pelléas, by Matthew Westphal, 11 May 2007

“Powerhouse” seems an odd word to use about Pelléas et Mélisande, probably the most oblique opera in the entire standard repertory. But look at the collection of talent the Royal Opera House has put together for its new production: Simon Rattle is on the podium; a riveting pair of performers, Simon Keenlyside and Angelika Kirchschlager, play the doomed lovers, with the equally compelling singer/actor Gerald Finley as Golaud, Mélisande’s husband and Pelléas’s half-brother. The word “powerhouse” can’t help but come to mind.

But then, this is not your usual Pelléas. Stanislas Nordey’s production, with sets by Emmanuel Clolus, is far, far away from the shadowy quasi-medieval fairy-tale kingdom typically seen in Debussy’s mysterious opera. Nor is this staging anything like the closed-in upper-middle-class family home some directors (such as Peter Sellars or Jean-Philippe Clarac) have favored.

Rupert Christiansen for The Telegraph, 14 May 2007


A masterpiece stripped of complexity

Normally, I believe the Royal Opera’s management to be a fairly sane body, but this dreadful new staging of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande leaves me wondering.Co-produced with the Salzburg Easter Festival, and slated when shown there last year, it is a travesty of this marvellously complex work. Surely it would have been possible to have dumped the hideous sets, costumes and pretence of direction, and kept the top-flight cast and conductor for concert performances?

Stanislas Nordey bases the action in and around a set of movable building blocks. The opera’s intricate geography is ignored – no towers, no vaults, no sense of the dank claustrophobia of Arkel’s castle. Raoul Fernandez’s costumes clothe everyone except Mélisande in outsize white suits, like refugees from some cheesy sci-fi movie.

Nordey coarsens the emotional situation, too, clumsily demystifying Maeterlinck’s symbolism and poetry without establishing any convincing context for what happens. The result is grist to the mill of those who think that Pelléas is a load of claptrap, ripe for parody (“Imagine devoting an opera to people with a mania for losing things,” sneered W H Auden).

The crudeness of interpretation vitiates the performances of Angelika Kirchschlager and Simon Keenlyside in the title roles. Both are too mature to be playing these children: Keenlyside’s attempt at naivety is embarrassing; Kirchschlager is knowing and manipulative. They sing with tremendous accomplishment and polish, but at times attack the music with excessive bravado.

Mélisande’s crooned “Mes longs cheveux” is a show-stopping aria, while Keenlyside goes way over the top in the Act IV duet and makes it sound like Mascagni. There’s no intimacy, no sense of half-heard whispers or unfinished sentences. As Golaud, Gerald Finley sings with more restraint, but his psychological torture never emerges as more than vague grumpiness.

With Robert Lloyd as an Arkel all too long in the tooth and Catherine Wyn-Rogers a fruity Geneviève, only the schoolboy George Longworth as Yniold seemed completely convincing, let alone involving. The orchestra plays magnificently for Simon Rattle.

In the first three acts, the score sounded very Berlin Phil – plush and velvety, and perhaps a little short of edge. But the fourth act was explosive, and the slow, poignant evanescence of the final scene was exquisitely pitched, ripe with the bittersweet subtlety in which the performance was otherwise so dismally wanting.

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Richard Morrison, The Times, May 14, 2007


Five out of five stars

Slow, sepulchral and strenuously symbolic, Debussy’s 1902 masterpiece has never exactly been the people’s choice in grand opera. For one thing, it draws out a very simple plot – infatuated prince frolics with wife of half-brother, who kills him – for three very sombre hours.

But if you see Pelléas et Mélisande only once, see this production. Stanislas Nordey’s staging, imported by the Royal Opera from Salzburg, has its pretentious moments. Yet in the main roles it also has three performers who sing wonderfully – colouring Debussy’s deceptively simple, one-note-per-syllable lines with consummate subtlety – and act with startling integrity.

Startling is the right word, too. Far from being the usual weepy victim of the brutish Golaud, the mesmerising Angelika Kirchschlager portrays Mélisande as an independent spirit, strong and manipulative, who is well aware of her disruptive effect on this desiccated dynasty. You get the feeling that she has done this before (after all, how did she acquire the crown that she chucks away when Golaud discovers her?).

And this sense of watching an eternally recurring, archetypal tragedy of adultery and revenge, rather than a drama rooted in a specific locale, is emphasised by the stage designs. Kirchschlager wears a blood-red dress while the royal family are dressed, or rather trapped, in absurd, white clown pantaloons. As she starts to cast her spell, so her red gradually infects the sombre blocks of Emmanuel Clolus’s set, which open like medieval triptychs.

In turn, their contents – dozens of reproductions of Golaud’s letter, or Mélisande herself pinned on the wall amid 38 other identical red dresses – also suggest that we are watching patterns of events that have been, and will be, played out again and again. Indeed, the headless, white-clad mannequins who spookily clutter the stage at the end could be all the luckless Pelléases who ever lived.

The cast’s brilliant acting reinforces this notion of people trapped in a preordained catastrophe. At first there is no eye contact, let alone physical contact, between them. It’s as if they are propelled by external force rather than inner urges.

Even in the famous balcony scene, as he wraps himself in Mélisande’s hair, Simon Keenlyside’s outstanding Pelléas seems more intent on unlocking his own psyche – striking a series of narcissistic ballet poses – than in making love to another person. Keenlyside’s singing is astonishing. In a part often taken by tenors, his baritone soars with glorious clarity and power.

Gerald Finlay’s Golaud is no less majestically sung, especially when his self-control snaps and he flings Mélisande around by her fateful tresses. The minor parts are admirably taken by Robert Lloyd (a sinister Arkel in black glasses), Catherine Wyn-Rogers and, especially, by the assured young treble George Longworth as Golaud’s traumatised son.

The icing on the cake is Simon Rattle’s conducting. Shimmeringly luminous, suggestive yet understated, and constantly ebbing and flowing, the orchestral sound-world he conjures seems to distil the essence of this hauntingly beautiful yet elusive opera.

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George Hall for The Stage, 14 May 2007


Debussy’s opera returns to Covent Garden in a staging co-produced with the Salzburg Easter Festival. Emmanuel Clolus’s sets present a sequence of boxes that open to reveal the visual motif for each scene. In Raoul Fernandez’s costumes the residents of Allemonde wear silvery decorated tops with puffed-up sleeves that look like leftovers from a West End pantomime. The characters face the audience more than each other and the characterisations and connections between them lack definition.

Sir Simon Rattle is in the pit and under him, this most delicate of operas has colour and atmosphere though not enough momentum. The result is Debussy-lite.

Pelleas depends more than most operas on a youthful pair of lovers at the centre and Philippe Berthome’s lighting does not flatter Covent Garden’s couple in this respect. But Simon Keenlyside’s Pelleas is sung with imagination and insight, while his acting is the finest on the stage. Angelika Kirchschlager’s Melisande comes over as hard whereas the character must register as vulnerable if the piece is to work.

There’s a strong Golaud from Gerald Finley, his incomprehension impressively etched in his stance and line. Robert Lloyd’s Arkel has gravitas if not enough voice and while Catherine Wyn-Rogers delivers a purposeful letter scene her costume looks particularly silly. George Longworth is marvellous as the child Yniold. But overall it is a muted interpretation of the symbolist masterpiece, let down by weak visuals and surprisingly, by the conductor.

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Fiona Maddocks, Evening Standard  14 May 2007


Three stars out of five

A scattering of catcalls greeted the production team at the final curtain of the Royal Opera’s new Pelléas et Mélisande, directed by Stanislas Nordey and already seen in Salzburg. Not an avalanche. It wasn’t that kind of crowd.

The cheers, for conductor Simon Rattle and a star cast, were temperate, but plentiful and heartfelt. For this was an evening in which musical standards ruled, even if the tedium of the production did its devilish and level best to hijack our minds and flatten our imagination.

That such superb musical forces should be let down in this way was a disappointment. Since its premiere in Paris in 1902, Debussy’s Symbolist masterpiece, set to Maeterlinck’s play, has had to struggle against misunderstanding, the biggest being that this fast-moving, impassioned work is somehow static, pallid and incomprehensible.

Nordey’s staging, a set of boxes that opened, closed, revolved ad infinitum, will have confirmed that prejudice. Do we need to see trees or water or hair – the three potent images of the piece – to be satisfied, dramatically? No. The only imperative is that, literally or symbolically, we apprehend these elements. Designer Emmanuel Clolus’s muddled abstractions were coercive in the worst sense, allowing no freedom of response and leaving the singers stranded.

Simon Keenlyside’s Pelléas had a haunting, sparky energy, while Angelika Kirchschlager opted for an unsettling, self-contained Mélisande. Gerald Finley’s Golaud glittered with hurt and anger, and George Longworth as the child Yniold was impeccable. All fine actors, they had to move now hieratically, now naturalistically, until the effort to follow proved distracting.

Worse still the Golaud-Pelléas family were got up in bejewelled white boiler suits like roly-poly Rococo plumbers. Mélisande, in contrast, wore a red dress, to show that she was an outsider in this dysfunctional family. Certainly, if we were not able to grasp so basic an element of the plot without this colour coding, we might as well not bother.

Fortunately, Rattle loves this luminous score and knows it inside out. Debussy always told his first interpreters to play softer, ever softer. The ROH players conjured some whispered pianissimos but also let rip, as in the menacing castle vaults scene when a panic-stricken Pelléas rushes out to the fresh air, prompting an outburst of scintillating brilliance in the orchestra. Such moments were high-points of a frustrating evening.

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Anne Ozorio for Seen and Heard (Extracts)


…Simon Rattle has performed a lot more Debussy than recordings alone would suggest.  His approach here shows an intuitive grasp of the composer’s idiom, and of what makes it still fresh and modern.  This was playing of great refinement, clearly and lucidly detailed, yet passionately felt and emotionally resonant. Indeed, it was musicianship that made this production.

The narrative revolves around Mélisande, so this production’s attempt to explore her character was brave and admirable.  She’s usually depicted as bland, child-like and wan, a blank against whom the other characters react.  Yet, Golaud encounters her deep in the forest. What’s a girl with extremely long hair doing there? Why is she so afraid that she’d rather kill herself than reveal who she is? Ancient folk myths make much of dense forests as places of hidden menace, of witchcraft and mystery.  In our post-Freudian times, we use the terminology of the unconscious.  Somehow Mélisande connects with the wild animal Golaud thinks he’s hunted down.  Is she another incarnation of Die Hexe Lorelei? Shocking as it may seem, this interpretation of Mélisande’s character is therefore perfectly valid.  Indeed, the culmination of the whole opera, in her death scene, suddenly becomes more pregnant (a Freudian slip on my part) with significance. It also deftly links the themes of sexuality, succession and decay that run throughout the narrative.

The staging in this production starts off very well indeed.  The forest is depicted by massive, impenetrable grey blocks.  Golaud’s castle, in contrast, is unnaturally bright and luminous.  All the household – even Geneviève – wear sparkling white uniforms.  They conform, they’re not wild creatures of the forest.  Superficially, this might contradict the idea of the castle as a place of gloom, but again there’s justification in the text, which makes much of the relentless heat, which is also oppressive. It’s an important foil to the music, with its depiction of water, in the fountain, in the watering of the garden, the sea, and especially the abandoned fountain whose waters once healed the blind.  At the stroke of noon, Golaud’s ring falls into its depths, and Golaud falls and is wounded.

The images occur again and again in the music, so there’s no missing them.  The superb playing saves the production, as the staging doesn’t develop meaningfully after the First Act, or pick up on other levels in the drama.  For example, when Mélisande leans over the pond, Pélleas is terrified that she’ll fall in herself. The music wells up (another Freudian slip) alarmingly, creating a sense of extreme tension and menace.  Moreover, it highlights the short phrase in which Pelléas mentions that Golaud first found Mélisande by a spring, too.  This confirms the idea that Mélisande isn’t as innocent as she seems.  It could have been made quite horrifying.  Instead, Kirchschlager just has to bend over the edge of the stage, her short hair barely disturbed.  The sense of menace evaporates. Similarly, the scene in which Mélisande leans out of the tower, letting her hair fall down, also fits the idea of Mélisande as temptress, for Freud has taught us that hair, too, is often symbolic.  Admittedly, there are technical difficulties in “showing” so much hair, but it’s a lost opportunity.  It’s ironic then, that this interpretation of Mélisande’s personality, so well expressed in the text and in the music, fails to impart its full power in this rather spartan production.  It’s a brilliant, and very well justified concept, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it couldn’t have been shown more effectively in visual terms.

It is in the final Act that the portrayal works best, because it draws together and makes logical sense of several themes.  Mélisande is dying, ostensibly after childbirth.  The red backcloth matches the scarlet of her dress.  It is as if the whole scene were a bloodbath, another telling reference connecting hunting, to Pelléas’s murder and to Golaud’s injury.  Instead of lying passively in bed, Kirchschlager sits, upright and tense in a chair in the front of the stage.  It’s a way of expressing the fact that she’s chosen, once again, “not” to speak or explain herself, and seems to choose death, which she’s mentioned several times in the past.  Indeed, even Golaud knows that she really died long before, when he took her from the forest and killed Pelléas.  That is why Debussy made such a point of the infant’s silence.  It doesn’t even “cry” in the music.  It’s supposed to be impassive, like Mélisande herself, who doesn’t explain and doesn’t yield.  As Arkel sings, “il faut qu’il vive, à sa place”.  What will be her relationship with Yniold, one wonders, particularly as Golaud himself thinks Pelléas and Mélisande kissed “like brother and sister”.  The story does not end.

The singing, needless to say with this cast, was excellent.  Keenlyside is a natural stage animal, much better in roles where he can “become” character than in Lieder. That’s why he was so effective in the Trisha Brown realisation of Winterreise. Because he’s sung Pelléas so often, he expressed a lot more about the role than this production on its own terms would suggest. For example, he managed to convey the strange mix of naivety and sexual awakening, so important in the narrative.  His voice is richer now in its lower register.  Soon, he’ll be a Golaud not a Pelléas. Angelika Kirchschlager’s Mélisande of course had much more colour and depth than the usual “white” vocal style the role usually gets, which I rather liked, because it fitted well with the music around the character.  Finley’s Golaud, too, was nicely rounded, making the role far more interesting than if he were portrayed as a simple brutish oaf.  Again, his characterisation fits in well with his volte-face in the last Act, where he suddenly shows self-knowledge and begs Mélisande’s forgiveness.  Maybe the waters of the spring symbolically cured his “blindness”, even if they didn’t work for Arkel.   Keenlyside, Finley and Robert Lloyd, as Arkel, also make a well-balanced ensemble, and their voices work well with Kirchschlager’s and Wyn Rogers’. Good casting isn’t pick and mix, because it’s meant to co-ordinate artistically.

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Edward Seckerson for The Independent, 15 May 2007

http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/music/reviews/article2548540.ece Best enjoyed with eyes shut

Three stars out of five

The long, slow, beautiful but elusive exposition of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a huge challenge to bring off in the theatre. The director Stanislav Nordey didn’t even come close. Better, on this occasion, to close one’s eyes and let Simon Rattle and the magnificent Royal Opera Orchestra open magic casements to the ineffably sad soul of this masterpiece.

Except, of course, that mine were wide open, trying to ascertain what exactly was going wrong. The problem seemed to lie with Nordey’s reliance on his designers and his failure to integrate his work with theirs. There were times during the interminable opening acts when there seemed to be two shows going on: one a kind of Turner Prize exhibit; the other (in terms of blocking) a rather routine touring-opera production. It was only in that extraordinary scene where Golaud, in his agony and impotence, uses his son Yniold (the remarkable George Longworth) to spy on Pelléas and Mélisande that everybody seemed to get a grip.

It’s hard to fail with that scene, but even there, Nordey almost defused the mounting tension, the unbearable threat of parental abuse, by physically separating father and son at the heart of it. How chilling, though, for us to see, for once, what the boy is seeing. The set designer Emmanuel Clolus offers a gravity-defying image of Pelléas and Mélisande floated, as it were, halfway up a white wall, just simply sitting, some distance apart, and gazing into each other’s eyes. The contrast between the chastity of that image and the ravages of Golaud’s jealousy could hardly be greater. So, at least one dramatic point scored.

Up until that moment, however, the stage narrative was entirely driven by Clolus opening up a series of huge “Chinese boxes” and illuminating something emblematic to the scene in question: a wall of Pelléas’s letters to Golaud in one; Mélisande’s white flowers in another; the lovers’ names spelled out in Braille to underline Arkel’s failing sight; bloodstained pillows pertaining to Golaud’s hunting accident; and, inevitably, Mélisande in the tower, like a butterfly in a display case, countless replicas of her red dress arrayed on either side.

A variation of that image re-occurs at the close of the piece, with a nightmarish image of Raoul Fernandez’s generic costuming of all the inhabitants of Allemonde – a hideously unflattering pantaloon suit, Star Trek meets Cirque du Soleil.

But this was a Pelléas et Mélisande that was too much about appearances and too little about soul. I did not for a moment believe in Angelika Kirchschlager as a creature who “could give God lessons in innocence”. Lovely singer, but neither vulnerable nor touching enough, and too much of this world. Simon Keenlyside was another matter, singing beautifully, ardently, magnificently in the sublimation of his final meeting with Mélisande. Finley was splendid, too, but for me there was too little distinction, physically and vocally, between him and his half-brother Pelléas.

Robert Lloyd exuded wisdom and gravitas and compassion as Arkel, the King of Allemonde. Of all the characters in the piece, it is he who finally unlocks the humanity in Debussy’s enigmatic score. Rattle, whose wonderfully transparent realisation was a constant source of intrigue, dug deep into Arkel’s despair, his orchestra welling up unforgettably with the line, “If I were God, I would take pity on the hearts of men.” If only.

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Richard Fairman for The Financial Times, May 16 2007


Close your eyes and enjoy

The best opera productions are always the ones in the mind’s eye. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s symbolist opera from the turn of the past century – a work of shadowy emotions and elusive characters which leaves everything that really matters to the imagination.

Productions of this tricky opera have come and gone fleetingly at the Royal Opera in the past 50 years. This latest is a co-production with the Salzburg Easter Festival, where it originated last year. The festival’s artistic director is conductor Simon Rattle and, in wanting to lure him back to Covent Garden, the Royal Opera was presumably obliged to take Stanislas Nordey’s mind-numbingly vacant production as well. That seems to be the science of co-productions – if you want the star, you get the black hole as part of the package.

If ever there was a performance to enjoy with one’s eyes shut, this is it. Seizing on the principle that Maeterlinck’s play is grounded in symbols, Nordey has made a selection of symbolic images to wave in front of our noses. As each new scene begins, an enormous black box is trundled around the stage and opened up to reveal multiple examples of his chosen symbol – bloodstained pillows, hand-written letters, or the giant names “Pélleas” and “Mélisande”. What a bore these images are – didactic when they should be suggestive, ugly when they should be beautiful.

Almost nothing that is seen on stage is worth blinking for. Let loose in the wardrobe department, costume designer Raoul Fernandez has made straight for the drawer labelled “commedia dell’arte” and dressed everyone except Mélisande in ludicrous white outfits like Pierrot. A shame the opera is not a comedy.

So, just lean back, close your eyes and listen. There have not been many native French singers in the opera at Covent Garden recently (or anywhere else, come to that) but this cast brings the poetry to life as inspiringly as any I have heard. The outstanding performer, at least in vocal terms, is Gerald Finley as Golaud. When he is singing there is no need to look up at the surtitles, as every word is crystal clear, sung with meaning and on a stream of beautiful, liquid tone.

As his younger brother Pelléas, Simon Keenlyside is less verbally clear but gets beneath the skin of the character to find a strange layer of immaturity and preciousness. (I wondered if he and Finley might have been cast round the other way, with the youthful-sounding Finley as Pelléas and Keenlyside bringing his dramatic insight to the murky depths of Golaud.)

In the role of Mélisande, Angelika Kirchschlager works hard to put across the production’s idea of her character – Fernandez’s flame-red dress and Nordey’s expressionist acting style mark her out as a destructive sexual force, like another Lulu – but the idea is hard to justify. Robert Lloyd makes a most sensitively sung Arkel; Catherine Wyn-Rogers sings well but looks too young to be Geneviève; and there was another outstanding performance from George Longworth, one of the two boy trebles sharing the role of Yniold.

Rattle accompanied them all with constant care, drawing first-class playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra. We already know he can be an inspired conductor of the final act of Wagner’s Parsifal, from which so much of Pelléas is derived, and the same deep gut feeling stirs here – not bright and clear music-making, as Debussy probably intended, but marvellously atmospheric. Top marks for the musical performance but on this Eurovision Song Contest weekend the vote for the production has to be “nul point”.


Michael Roddy for The Scotsman, May 14 2007


Devil wears a red dress in “Star Trek” Pelleas

There are plenty of rock musicals in London’s West End, but if you want to see the devil with the red dress on, she’s at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Perhaps not exactly a she-devil, but Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirschlager’s Melisande, costumed in a bewitching, diamond-panelled red dress for Debussy’s mystical “Pelleas et Melisande”, is anything but the wan heroine of productions past.

This is a Melisande for a metro-sexual age, ordering Prince Golaud, who finds her alone in a forest, not to fish out a crown from a fountain (how’d it get there, huh?). Later, eyes flashing mischievously, she’ll nonchalantly toss the wedding ring he gives her down a well.

“I’m not stupid,” Kirschlager, still wearing that dress, says of her character backstage after last week’s London premiere of a new Salzburg-Royal Opera co-production with Simon Rattle on the podium. “I’m always watching and trying not to get into a bad situation, but I’m not passively shy,” she adds. “I’m reflecting my situation.”

Hers – in the red dress – is decidedly better than the rest of the superb cast who are outfitted in baggy, bangled white body suits that are a cross from some campy outcast aliens in “Star Trek” and Elvis-impressionist gear. Couple this with a staging using huge monolithic boxes a la “2001 A Space Odyssey” that open to reveal, variously, 91 blood-stained pillows (marriage on the rocks, get it?), or the vixen herself in THAT dress, pinioned as if in a butterfly collection amid 38 copies of same, and you feel pinioned by director Stanislas Nordey’s static movements and clobbered by designer Emmanuel Clolus’s heavyhandedness.

“Pelleas et Melisande” wasn’t meant to be this way, it is an opera of deep subtlety in which no one is completely right and no one is completely wrong. At least the singers get it.

“I’d be disappointed if I was seen as the mean guy,” said Canadian-born baritone Gerald Finley, who sings Golaud. But doesn’t he kill his half brother, the poetic, childlike Pelleas (British baritone Simon Keenlyside) who has tried to run away from his infatuation with Melisande but yes, probably has had carnal knowledge of her? “Yes, but he’s (Golaud) a man driven by his own passion. And I think we all have a villain inside of us. “What I’d hoped really was to portray a certain complexity of motivation if you like and that’s been the essence of the production, to make them real characters that are going through thought processes that are absolutely tormenting them.”

There’s not much complexity to be heard, though, in Rattle’s interpretation. With big belts of brass and gales of strings, we’re hellbent for leather for Wagner here, with potential for tossing in whole passages of “Parsifal” almost without anyone being the wiser.

It’s a way to see it. That troublesome German tore a hole a mile wide through the music world of the late 19th- early 20th century, but perhaps not this wide. For a different point of view, hunt down Pierre Boulez’s famous recording based on an earlier Covent Garden production from the early 1970s. Of course, you can only hear it, not see it. But then again, with the current production, there may be moments you want to avert your eyes. Except when that lady with the red dress is on.


Colin Anderson for theoperacritic.com, 11 May 2007


Great care lavished on the Royal Opera’s Pelléas

“…The orchestra and the conductor are crucial to the success of Debussy’s version of Pelléas et Mélisande. In the current production hosted by The Royal Opera (a co-production with the Salzburg Easter Festival) Sir Simon Rattle is a deeply sympathetic and perceptive interpreter of Debussy’s discriminating yet revealing music. At this first night the inaugural sound to be heard, when the lights had lowered and Rattle was about to conduct, was the ringing of a mobile phone. Fortunately this stopped before the first music was heard. A beautiful, veiled sound emanated from the pit. We see the lone figure of Mélisande. She becomes very nervous of Golaud, who is also lost in the woods, as he enquires of her. Bit by bit they become closer. They marry and return to Golaud’s family castle, a lonely and inhospitable place occupied by Geneviève (mother to Golaud and Pelléas), Arkel (the king), Yniold (Golaud’s son) – and, of course, Pelléas himself. He is Golaud’s half-brother, someone that Mélisande is unsure of, but their relationship grows, partly through innocence and naivety. Golaud has his bloody revenge at the end of Act IV when he stabs Pelléas to death – the violence all the more shocking for the restraint shown elsewhere.

Debussy’s opera is a study of the human condition, of relationships and feelings. A difficult work to stage, though, given there is little action beyond the revealing of the characters, their surroundings and their emotions. Under the direction of Stanislas Nordey, the production team has not tried to inflate anything nefarious to add ‘entertainment’. Lighting is deliberately gloomy, save when extra brightness matches the text, and the stage is dominated by moveable gigantic tombstone-like designs that open up like trophy cabinets to display various collections of pertinent artifacts. In Act IV the stage is lit blood-red, a portent for the murder of Pelléas with which the act climaxes. An insular, hermetic world is well suggested. It is difficult to know what could be added. Similar effects could be achieved by other means and one can imagine different costumes for the castle inhabitants other than satin-white and bejeweled uniforms that seem more suitable for space travel than an earthly kingdom.

… Staging it, this Royal Opera House one anyway, can detract through being static and with little to watch, yet it also underlines the nature of the work. A fine dividing line then between complementing Debussy’s intentions and swamping them. And, of course, seeing the singers in character and through their gestures and interaction does add another piece to the jigsaw.

The cast assembled by The Royal Opera is excellent. Each singer is in fine vocal form and each gives a vivid portrayal of their respective characters, believable as such (especially in allegorical terms). Special mention must be made of the youngest and oldest of the cast. George Longworth as Yniold (Golaud’s son) is very confident of voice and movement, while Robert Lloyd (the king) brings a musical wisdom that is also apt for this role. This is an ensemble opera and this cast works well together. The foundation is the orchestra. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House plays wonderfully well under Sir Simon Rattle who loves and respects this opera; he does not apply colours and sound, rather he illuminates from within Debussy’s subtle variegation of texture and harmony, retaining elusiveness while making explicit the composer’s wonderfully imagined musical and emotion-revealing processes.

The very final chord, ending the still-death-haunted and uncertain last act and the opera as a whole, suggests the question of ‘where next?’. The answer is to Covent Garden. Pelléas et Mélisande is a perplexing and enigmatic work, in many ways a masterpiece, certainly on purely musical achievements, but asks questions of opera itself and how best to stage it. The recorded broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 9 June (at 6.30 p.m.) will present the opera as a feast for the mind. But the full staging is another way of unlocking the secrets. For the most part the first-night audience seemed to be compelled by the slow-burn beauty of Debussy’s score and the splendid singing and acting. I’m not sure about the cart-wheeling lighting that presumably illustrates Mélisande unfurling her long hair (not seen as such) – another example of something being ‘too much for the eyes’ – but her appearance in the tower is well handled.

In short, given the relative rarity of the opera and the care lavished on it here, then there is much that makes this a must-see (and -hear) production.

Warwick Thompson for Bloomberg, May 14 2007


Seductive Melisande Triumphs on Bare Stage at Royal Opera

Stanislas Nordey’s production of Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” has a sexy heroine in a red skintight dress, powerful singing and a bare stage. Now that it has transferred to London’s Royal Opera, it’s a hit. Mostly.

Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager looks stunning in a silky 1930s-style evening gown with weighted pleats. She acts with poise, and uses a palette of vocal emotions to create a seductive portrait of Melisande. She marries Golaud, a prince of Allemonde, who is given a full-blooded portrait by baritone Gerald Finley.

Melisande then falls in love with his half-brother Pelleas. Simon Keenlyside is puppyish and energetic in the role, often avoiding vibrato in his voice to suggest youth and innocence.

Finley makes Golaud into a more tormented character: His ironic spitting of the word “innocence” is a chilling highlight. The prince murders his sibling, and the mysterious Melisande dies without revealing her secrets.

An unhappy fairy tale? A standard love triangle? A symbolic drama of arcane mysteries and fin-de-siecle mysticism? Debussy’s 1902 opera, which often hovers tantalizingly on the edge of harmonic resolution without stepping in, is all these things.

Musically, the performances are ravishing. The score can easily become a mezzo-forte pastel-colored gloop: Conductor Simon Rattle avoids this with subtle pointing of orchestral details and sure grasp of dramatic momentum. His use of rasping, hard-edged bassoons to suggest Golaud’s intractability is striking.

Nordey’s version got bad reviews at last year’s Salzburg Easter Festival. Perhaps the good burghers of Austria wanted to see real castles and forests instead of symbolic light-boxes. Perhaps it suffered because one of the principal singers pulled out because of illness.

Walls of Light

Nordey sets the story on a bare, darkened stage. Emmanuel Clolus’s set is made up of huge gray boxes which open to reveal differently textured walls of light, sometimes suggesting a castle garden, sometimes a dungeon. The acting of the singers inhabits a world somewhere between hieratic gesture and spontaneity, part stylized, part naturalistic.

For the most part it’s a wonderful response to the score, though occasionally the symbolism still needs more concrete dramatic realization. When Melisande lets down her long hair from a tower so that Pelleas can touch it, the scene begins promisingly. We see the heroine pinned high up against one of the light-walls, like a butterfly in a case, with Pelleas below her.

Luminous Ecstasy

Nordey doesn’t give Kirchschlager the 20-foot tresses the libretto requires and suggests the lovers’ connection by means of swirling lights. It’s not a bad solution exactly, but it still doesn’t match the luminous ecstasy of the music.

Another problem lies with Raoul Fernandez’s painfully over- obvious costumes. The people of Allemonde (that’s everyone in the opera except Melisande) all wear white one-piece suits made up of embroidered Renaissance doublets and foam-puffed trousers. It’s meant to suggest their stiff formality. It actually looks like a bizarre cross between the movie “Shakespeare in Love” and BBC television children’s series “The Teletubbies.”

Notwithstanding the above, this is a production with mystery and magic. If only all Austrian cast-offs could be as entertaining.

Kate Kellaway for The Observer, May 20, 2007


Don’t look now… just listen

Debussy’s tale of sexual jealousy sounds superb. But why has the Royal Opera forsaken fairy-tale magic for clumsy symbolism?

Melisande is like Keats’s Belle Dame sans Merci. She is a mystery, potentially a cipher. She prefers not to be touched. She does not like to talk. These unattractive attributes are, in her case, seductive. We first encounter her alone, weeping in a wood. But one of the differences between Melisande and La Belle Dame is that Melisande gets married. And her husband, Golaud, half-brother of Pelleas, must leave the path of true love for the stony pathlessness of sexual jealousy and sibling rivalry. Debussy, who began work on the opera in 1893, chose Maeterlinck’s beautiful, strained fairy tale – a prose drama – partly because he loved its ambiguity. Its uncertainties complemented his music. He once said: ‘Music begins at the point where the word becomes powerless as an expressive force.’

The difficulty about this in terms of the opera is that mystery, without psychological insight, can become a bore. The music must compensate for lack of character. And, up to a point, it does: I love the fierce reverie of this opera, its tension and portent. Under Simon Rattle’s zealously controlled direction, the orchestra is subtle yet precise and dreamy whenever it needs to be. But Pelleas and Melisande is in no way easy to stage – as Stanislas Nordey’s production helplessly reveals. He has, with designer Emmanuel Clolus, opted for swaggering stylishness and clunky symbolism. They have disposed of pastoral altogether. There is no water, no weeping willow, no sylvan scene. Instead, the wood is represented by three stupendous cubes with grey marbled sides, tediously rotated between scenes by a crowd of stagehands. Anything suggestive of fairy tale has gone.

In principle, I’ve nothing against a departure from the literal – especially to serve a symbolic piece. And the good thing about this set is that because it’s uncluttered it throws the story into relief in all its oddity. I liked the opening scene in which Melisande and Golaud are on opposite sides of the proscenium arch, each leaning against one of the Royal Opera House’s golden columns, singing to each other across the space. Less satisfactory is that the men look like overweight ice-skaters in sparkling white all-in-one suits that cling to their torsos before ballooning into pantaloons. The overall look is slightly sci-fi. Melisande slinks between them in a red silk evening gown, a stray from an unknown past, their scarlet woman.

The opera explores what it means to be lost. It is full of secrets. Often the music caresses the air as if it alone might coax a confession from Melisande. Yet in this production the signposts are so clear that no one is in any doubt about destination. The most heavy-handed moment is when a line, plucked from the libretto, is projected on to a lightbox in mighty letters for all to see. It reads: ‘Sentez-vous l’odeur de mort qui monte?’ It is like being given an over-the-top sight test at an optician’s. This really is spelling it out.

Equally unsuccessful is the scene in which Melisande appears halfway up the back wall of the stage, a trapped mannequin, surrounded by 39 scarlet dresses identical to her own (the symbolism escapes me). And it is at this moment that, like a brunette Rapunzel, Melisande is meant to let down her torrent of hair so that Pelleas may entwine himself in it. He is artificially placed with his back to her and deals with the imaginary hair as though fighting off an octopus. In this production, courtship is always effortful. Death is easier and the best scene is the murder of Pelleas in which Gorlaud’s inky silhouette creeps up by stealth from the back of the fiery-red set of the second half.

The good news is that the many problems of the production do not extinguish the pleasures of the singing itself. As Golaud, Gerald Finley is tremendous, his voice a raft of sound, a safe place. And Simon Keenlyside is shrewdly cast as Pelleas. He makes ardour second nature, his voice is fine and lively. I also enjoyed Robert Lloyd’s sympathetic performance as his father. And it was amazing to hear schoolboy George Longworth as Yniold (Golaud’s son) singing with a self-possession way beyond his years. As for Melisande, Angelika Kirchschlager neither thrills nor disappoints, although I sometimes felt her voice was tremulously incomplete. It was as if she were holding something back – like Melisande herself.

Hugh Canning for The Sunday Times, May 20, 2007


Pretty vacant

Debussy’s masterpiece has been given too much style and left with too little substance

The Royal Opera is mis-quoting my original review of its co-production with the Salzburg Easter Festival of Pelléas et Mélisandein its ads for the Covent Garden run. “A catwalk opera (The Sunday Times),” proclaims the promotional blurb, but what I actually wrote was: “This is catwalk opera, dramatically null and meaning-less.” It is a bit alarming that the RO management thinks that referring to Debussy’s profound and serious masterpiece as such is a recommendation, but meanwhile my apologies to any Kate or Naomi fans who might have gone along expecting a fashion show.

It is conceivable, I suppose, that supermodels might pass muster in Raoul Fernandez’s absurd, does-my-bum-look-big-in-this, Pierrot costumes, but apart from George Longworth as Golaud’s young son, Yniold, none of the RO cast is flattered by them, and only Simon Keenlyside’s athletic and agile Pelléas manages to make you forget how ridiculous he looks. His adult relatives look like stuffed mannequins, understand-ably depressed at having to wear such preposterous fancy dress. In Richard Jones’s unforgettable production for Opera North and English National Opera, Yniold was the tragic focus of a harrowing psychodrama about a dysfunc-tional family; here he is a cheeky little chappie in a slightly poncy party frock.

Nobody expects to see Pelléas et Mélisande today in the neo-medieval, preRaphaelite settings envisaged by Maurice Maeterlinck, the author of the symbolist play on which it is based. But Stanislas Nordey’s production, in lifestyle-mag and abstract-art settings by Emmanuel Clolus, doesn’t begin to delve beneath the subtext of Debussy’s reduction of Maeterlinck’s play, or to reveal the mysteries of the psychology and drama. Debussy’s masterpiece is shrouded in a dreamlike ambiguity, so scenic literalism is unhelpful, but Nordey and his team substitute big, glitzy promo-visuals like a glossy advertising spread. You care for the characters as much as you might about models in a photo shoot. Debussy’s drama moves for much of the evening at a leisurely pace, but I can’t remember ever being as unengaged by the misfortunes of the house of Allemonde – the mythical kingdom ruled by Pelléas’s family – as I was at Monday night’s performance.

Nordey botches the isolated moments of high drama: Pelléas’s emergence from the castle’s vaults into the sunlit open air; Golaud’s terrifying fit of jealousy and violence when he drags Mélisande by her hair and invokes the name of King David’s faithless son, Absa-lom; and Pelléas’s impassioned declaration of love followed by his murder at his half-brother’s hands. These great histrionic confrontations go for nothing.

Nordey’s failure is all the more lamentable in that he had at his disposal an outstanding cast and a conductor, Simon Rattle, whose interpretation of Debussy’s score ranks alongside those of his great predecessors at Covent Garden – Pierre Boulez, Colin Davis and Claudio Abbado. Rattle gets ravishingly subtle, luminous and impassioned playing from Antonio Pappano’s orchestra. He dares extremes of pianissimo in the score’s twilit pages and almost Wagnerian opulence in the great orchestral climax. It is hard to imagine a superior account of this music anywhere else today.

The principal singers, too, could hardly be bettered, even though none of them is French.  rKeenlyside’s Pelléas is a classic, triumphing over his ludicrous Liberace-meets-Coco-the-Clown outfit with singing of rapt beauty and the physical grace of a dancer. Gerald Finley suggests he could be a great Golaud in a serious staging. Canadian-born, he has near-immaculate French and his darker, bass-baritonal timbre contrasts well with the more lyrical-sounding Keenlyside. Mélisande proves to be one of Angelika Kirchschlager’s most congenial roles, even though she has to play the part as a slightly dotty scarlet woman experiencing a very bad hair day. And young master Longworth wins allhearts as Yniold with his keen, fresh treble voice and natural charm.

Anna Picard, Independent on Sunday, 20 May 2007


My phone-sex shame

Of the many scores that suckled at the bleeding breast of Tristan und Isolde, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is the most alluring and enigmatic. Though Stanislas Nordey’s Salzburg Easter Festival production was widely criticised when it opened, this had little effect on advance bookings for its Royal Opera House run. Pelléas is such an opiate that those who are hooked will sit through any style of production, be it pop-Freudian or Pre-Raphaelite, while those who have yet to succumb will have been tempted by the casting of Simon Keenlyside, Angelika Kirchschlager and Gerald Finley.

Nordey’s staging offers a series of stunning images that connect only obliquely to Debussy’s symbolism, and occasionally work in opposition to it. The flat, white lighting cruelly exposes the singers’ real ages, while the sci-fi romper suits that most of them wear cruelly test our suspension of disbelief. Two styles of gesture are employed: hieratic and naturalistic. There is an odd blurring as the singers change from one to the other, which in Keenlyside’s Pelléas is semi-permanent. Rarely is he secure on two feet. Often he wavers, like a life-drawing model weary of holding an awkward pose. This is also felt in his singing, which, though artful, is tense. By contrast, Gerald Finley’s Golaud is a knotted tumour of misery and anger, whose agony subsumes even his son’s terror during his monstrous abuse of Yniold (an excellent George Longworth).

The inexorable ice-dance of designer Emmanuel Clolus’s vast sarcophagi – some studded with flowers, some blotted with blood – is more sensitive to the shades of the score than is the direction of the cast. Though beautifully sung, Kirchschlager’s Mélisande is unknowable in the wrong way: self-contained, experienced, a close cousin of Maw’s Sophie without Sophie’s desperate sensuality. I don’t think you need a castle or a lake in Pelléas. But you do need hair. Act III scene 1, where Kirchschlager is pinned to a tiny balcony among empty duplicates of her scarlet shift like a feebly twitching butterfly in a collector’s case, is played as an erotic long-distance phone-call, minus the phone and minus the eroticism. Imagination is a powerful thing when you cannot touch the object of your desire. But it’s not that powerful.

So is this Pelléas as frigid as its staging? Not in the pit. Here’s the sorrow, here’s the obsession, here too the hair, the water, the forest, and an uninhibited, almost improvisatory expressivity I could not have anticipated from Sir Simon Rattle. Musically, at least, this is a richly imaginative reading of the opera, with some of the most unusual, seductive and exciting textures that I have heard from this orchestra’s lower strings. Still, it is sad that that such fine singing actors as Keenlyside, Kirchschlager, Finley, Robert Lloyd (Arkel) and Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Genevieve) should play second fiddle to a series of exquisitely lit boxes, and regrettable that Nordey has a keener sense for the architecture of his production than he has for its personnel.

From Time Out


Pelléas et Mélisande – Recommended

Debussy’s ethereal tragedy of waifs, woods, dungeons and caves in a misty kingdom by the sea… Symbolist, a dash of expressionism, pre-Raphaelites meet Art Nouveau, a hint of Celtic féerie… Shame the production ignores all these possibilities: the usual pivotal slabs pushed round the stage are acceptably lit and moderately atmospheric but the cast is sabotaged by the most unflattering costumes to be found outside the big top. ‘It takes a lot to make Simon Keenlyside look bad,’ murmured the distinguished conductor sitting next to me. And Catherine Wyn-Rogers should sue. Luckily nothing can make the cast or orchestra sound bad. Rattle’s conducting brings out the beauties of the orchestral writing so as to make you wonder why it was ever thought hard to grasp (‘Che bella musica!‘ jeered the Italians at the Scala premiere – ‘Yes, it is!’ furiously shouted Maestro Toscanini back at the audience). The singing is superb as is the acting, within the production’s stylised constraints, down to the terrifyingly self-possessed young boy playing Little Yniold.

Michael Tanner for The Spectator, 19 May 2007


…So I come, reluctantly, to Covent Garden’s Pelléas et Mélisande. It’s a production shared with Salzburg, where it was unveiled at last year’s Easter Festival. Musically it is quite remarkable, even without a single native French speaker. In fact it is as fine a cast as could be assembled, and the conducting of Simon Rattle is at least interesting, possibly very fine. I shall have to wait until the Radio Three broadcast to judge. I was so alienated and enraged by the settings and production that for at least the first three acts I couldn’t respond to the music in the way that I’ve become used to doing with productions of this degree of pretentious imbecility. If you’ve seen the advertisements for it, you’ll have noticed Simon Keenlyside, the Pelléas, dressed in elaborately brocaded costume with huge shoulder and hip pads. So is everyone else, identically, from Arkel to little Yniold, with the exception of Mélisande, who wears a simple scarlet evening dress. For the first three acts the stage has on it four huge rectangular blocks, moved round by a regiment of stage hands, one of them (the blocks) arriving centre stage and being opened out to reveal a white surface. No other scenery. The singers mainly keep their distance from one another, the one actually singing often coming to front stage centre and singing straight to the audience. Movements are jerky, postures are contorted and strange. Presumably the idea of director Stanislas Nordey and designer Emmanuel Clolus is that the Arkel family are all stiff puppets, and it’s only after the supple Mélisande has been imprisoned with them for some time that the scenery changes to a red wall, gashed, and they start behaving like real people, climaxing in a ferociously intense love scene before Golaud, sung by Gerald Finley, comes in and stabs his half-brother to death. After that, rigour sets in again for Act V, with Mélisande sitting on a chair, the only piece of furniture we’ve seen, and dying in it, surrounded by white manikins.

This magnificent team of singing actors are given almost no chance to live their roles, something which would be alien to the director’s aesthetic, I take it. They are to blame for not refusing to take part in this annihilation of Debussy’s bemusing but, up to now, always stirring and upsetting masterpiece.

Warwick Thompson for Metrolife, 16 May 2007

Four stars out of five

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is an opera of half-hints, symbols and subtext. Perhaps the people who booed Stanislas Nordey’s strikingly beautiful production on Friday needed to see real castles, forests and swords for it to work its magic. For me, the magic was in their suggestion.

Nordey sets out the story, a love triangle between the mysterious Mélisande, her husband Golaud, and her brother-in-Law Pelléas, on a darkened stage. The singers – their acting part stylised, part naturalistic – walk slowly among enormous grey boxes which are turned by murky black figures to reveal soft walls of light.

In a haunting tableau, Golaud begs the dying heroine to reveal her secrets: it’s a wonderful image for the ultimate unknowability of the soul. If only a couple of scenic gestures were timed better and Raoul Fernandez’s ridiculous costumes (apart from Mélisande’s slinky dress) had been ditched, it would have been pure operatic bliss.

The performances are superlative. Angelika Kirchschlager uses a palette of luscious reds and cool blues in her voice to create a seductive portrait of Mélisande. Keenlyside is puppyish and innocent as Pelléas and Gerald Finley is a wonderfully intense Golaud. Simon Rattle brings out every detail of the score without sacrificing the dramatic momentum. Magically suggestive.

Extract from a review by Roger Parker for Opera, July 2007

…For some, this was nevertheless close to an ideal Pelleas. The blankness and lack of visual pleasure acted as an open invitation to listen rather than look, above all encouraging close concentration on the extraordinary levels of orchestral detail in which Debussy enwraps his drama. And in this particular performance, the rewards here were undeniable: Simon Rattle and the ROH Orchestra were at something like the top of their form, extracting from the score an altogether remarkable range of sonorities. One’s ears became attuned to distinguishing minute gradations of timbre and dynamic, so much so that the (rare) climaxes-notably the one in the interlude after Act 4, scene 2- became overwhelming. What’s more, the vocal excellence of the three principals triumphantly overcame their unfortunate mise en scene. Above all this was a matter of diction: crucially important in Pelleas because, orchestral interludes apart, Debussy’s supposedly anti-Wagnerian opera sounds uncannily like extended Wagnerian narratives such as Wotan’s in Act 2 of Die Walkiire. It would be invidious to single out one of these singers over the others; so, extravagant and equal praise to (in order of appearance) Gerald Finley (Golaud), Angelika Kirchschlager (Melisande) and Simon Keenlyside (Pelleas), with an honourable mention for the excellent Yniold of George Longworth: I doubt the opera has often been sung better.

George Hall for Opera News, August  2007 , vol 72 , no.2

The Royal Opera’s new Pelléas et Mélisande (seen May 11) came as a joint effort with the Salzburg Easter Festival, where it had its premiere in 2006. In London, as in Salzburg, the young lovers were sung by Angelika Kirchschlager and Simon Keenlyside, both now in the forties. This might not have mattered so much had Philippe Berthomé’s lighting been less searching or the singers so frequently at the front of the stage. But as things stood, it did matter. As a performer, Keenlyside proved a fine Pelléas, creating a pensive, spontaneous, sensitive individual and singing with point and delicacy. Kirchschlager’s Mélisande was less successful, registering as a much stronger, even harder personality, both vocally and physically, than Debussy’s and Maeterlinck’s enigmatic waif. A mezzo timbre is also less than ideal in this music, however possible the notes may be for the lower voice.
As Golaud, Gerald Finley wore a constantly furrowed brow and suggested nicely the brooding presence of the darkest character in the piece. Like Keenlyside’s, his detailed attention to the notes and the text paid substantial dividends. Robert Lloyd’s Arkel had visual gravitas but his now reduced bass lacked authority. There was an excellent Yniold from young George Longworth, who sang and acted like a pro, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s Geneviève gave her letter-reading some solemnity and presence.
If only she had looked less silly. The residents of the kingdom of Allemonde were dressed, in Raoul Fernandez’s costumes, in silvery decorated blouses with puffed-up sleeves, like the characters in a West End pantomime. Emmanuel Clolus’s sets consisted of a sequence of boxes, moved on and off by stagehands, that opened up to reveal the visual motif for each scene. For the famous letting-down of Mélisande’s hair (which naturally didn’t literally happen), Kirchschlager was surrounded by multiple reproductions of the glamorous red evening dress she was wearing. For Geneviève’s scanning of the morning’s post, the three-paneled box was covered in handwritten letters. It may have been appropriate, but it did not tell us very much. Visually this was an underwhelming rather than a disruptive experience, but Stanislas Nordey’s direction was rarely focused or specific enough to provide the narrative with a clear and ineluctable trajectory.
The nominal star of the evening was Simon Rattle, making one of his infrequent visits to the Covent Garden pit from his artistic home in Berlin. It’s clearly a score that means much to him. The orchestra was on its most responsive form, and with its aid the conductor highlighted many of the beauties of Debussy’s resonant harmony and translucent orchestration. But again an overall dynamic was absent, and there was a want of power for the work’s occasional moments of violence. For some of us Pelléas is one of the masterpieces of the genre, though it has to be admitted that it passes many regular operagoers by. On this occasion it seemed a meandering affair. This was not a night for making converts.

Picture Gallery

(All photos by Clive Barda for ROH)

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