PellÈas et MÈlisande at the Barbican

His doubtless ‘well-meaning’ productions may have reached their nadir
with ENO’s
The Indian Queen
; but we can nevertheless do without a
PellÈas et MÈlisande which exchanges metaphysics and textual
subtlety for EastEnders-style melodrama. The plot really is not the
thing here, and it certainly does not benefit from absurd exaggeration.
Entirely ignoring the work, Sellars has MÈlisande and PellÈas all over each
other at an early stage; their kiss therefore counts for little. Arkel seems
primarily to be a pervert who cannot keep his hands off his grandson’s wife.
Many seem to be convulsed by trembling, indicating ailments about which I
should rather not speculate; poor MÈlisande’s death is more graphic than any
semi-staging is likely ever to attempt again. For some reason, all of this
takes place in an environment marked out by multi-coloured neon lights: how
Debussyan! And yes, you have doubtless guessed: the lights eventually all go

All of the cast throw themselves into Sellars’s bizarre vision with
admirable dedication. If it could work, they would have made it do so. One
could hardly not respect their artistry, even when, as in Magdalena
Koûen·’s case, the artist seemed miscast. At her best, she showed up
intriguing, twitching correspondences with Kundry. Her flagrantly sexual
performance of ‘Mes long cheveux’, however much it adhered to Sellars’s
apparent concept, could hardly convince, given the doubtless frustrating
presence of the opera ‘itself’. Christian Gerhaher and Gerald Finley both
gave ardent performances, Finley’s sadism as Golaud especially chilling;
again, though, I could not help but think that, however beautifully he sang,
Gerhaher was not ideally cast in the role, or at least in the production. His
conception certainly seemed more Romantically poetic than that of Sellars;
admittedly, it would be difficult not to be. Franz-Josef Selig gave a
wonderfully compassionate performance vocally; what a pity he was saddled with
such incongruous acts to perform on stage. Bernarda Fink and Joshua Bloom were
both very impressive in their smaller roles too.

I was surprised, especially before the interval, by Simon Rattle’s
conducting. There could be little doubting the excellence of the LSO’s
performance, although I should have expected Rattle to draw at times softer
playing from them. Yet Rattle, whose Debussy has in my experience always been
very much Debussy to be reckoned with, too often left phrases hanging,
seemingly reluctant to insist upon a longer, Wagnerian line. He certainly
brought out Wagnerian echoes, as much of Tristan as of
Parsifal, much to the score’s benefit; yet they did not always come
together as tightly as they might; it was almost as if he wished to portray
Debussy as negatively Wagnerian (that is, an heir to Nietzsche’s ‘greatest
miniaturist’). Coherence was greater later on, although I could not really
reconcile myself to the almost Puccini-like vulgarity of the climaxes. Surely
if there is one thing Debussy avoids at almost any cost, it is playing to the
gallery. Perhaps, though, Rattle was, not entirely unreasonably, offering an
interpretation tailored to his director’s concept. His 2007 PellÈas
for the Royal Opera was nothing like this at all. I hope we shall have chance
to hear him — and indeed the LSO — in this opera again in better

Rattle spoke movingly at the beginning of his esteem for Pierre Boulez, to
whose memory the performance was dedicated.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

MÈlisande: Magdalena Koûen·; PellÈas: Christian Gerhaher; Golaud:
Gerald Finley; Arkel: Franz-Josef Selig; GeneviËve: Bernarda Fink; Doctor,
Shepherd: Joshua Bloom. Director: Peter Sellars; Assistant Director: Hans-Georg
Lenhart; Lighting: Ben Zamora. London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon
Halsey)/London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall,
London, Sunday 10 January 2016.

image_description=Magdalena Koûen· [Photo © Harald Hoffmann, Deutsche Grammophon]
product_title=PellÈas et MÈlisande at the Barbican
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Magdalena Koûen· [Photo © Harald Hoffmann, Deutsche Grammophon]