It’s a little over a year since Debussy’s only finished opera was last given here in London, at the Royal Festival Hall, with the forces of the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a minimalist semi-staging by David Edwards of quite wonderful atmosphere and maximum theatrical impact, and which was both excellently sung and immaculately played/conducted. I reviewed it here, and gave it 5*. This LSO offering – on again tomorrow and being recorded for the orchestra’s own label – is plainly pitched at an altogether starrier level, with deluxe casting in all roles, and a big-name director attached in the shape of Peter Sellars, with an even bigger-name conductor, Simon Rattle, currently basking in the pre-honeymoon period of his new relationship with the band. But in the event, I can’t say that the results struck me as coming anywhere near to those achieved on the South Bank in 2014, partly because – rather to my surprise – both of the principal roles were much more effectively sung there than they are here, and partly because Sellars, utterly predictably, proves to be a far more assertive and interventionist presence, wilfully distorting some of the narrative and imposing ersatz directorial glosses whilst creating a luridly-lit alien landscape out of the Barbican platform in which the only fundamental spatial relationships required by the libretto – higher up, lower down, above and beneath – are usually either ignored or subverted. More is sometimes less: much less.

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First, to get the worst of Sellars’ tedious “innovations” out of the way, poor Arkel is once again turned into some slavering geriatric predator who’s all over Mélisande like a rash in Act IV scene ii (the discovery of which is used to motivate Golaud’s subsequent maltreatment of his wife and the supplementary vicious kicks he gives to her heavily pregnant belly). The sheep in the following scene which Yniold observes are physically embodied in the shape of three young women – ubiquitous supernumeraries earlier used as the three starving old beggars in the cave (who happen to be men) – and are being sold by the “shepherd” via smartphone into some unspecified sex-slavery, handcuffs and all. And so on. You get the picture: smart-arsery and silliness in equal measure. There’s also the fact that despite the essential innocence of the two protagonists’ relationship, Sellars loses no opportunity to have the pair of them forever entwined and pawing at each other, even reworking the “tower” scene to have them occupying the same space rolling around on the floor instead of physically separated as specified by the libretto. This isn’t revelatory: it’s the tacky small-change of soap-opera, which seriously falsifies the nature of the piece Debussy took the trouble to write. As for the lighting – credited to Ben Zamora – this consisted of nine vertical pairs of blindingly bright neon lights in eye-gouging shades of red, blue, orange, pink, purple and green variously dotted around the orchestral platform on tripods, looking like nothing so much as the remnants of some provincial funfair that’s gone bust. Hideous to have to behold all night long – well, not quite: they were switched off in Act V – and a staggeringly inapposite visual analogue to this exquisitely delicate score of shimmering half-lights and crepuscular gloom (and they gave me a migraine into the bargain).

Rattle has certainly rethought the opera since he last conducted it at the ROH in 2007. It is now a notably more febrile affair, with some unexpectedly hair-raising accelerandos and an underlying sense of instability amongst all the otherwise supremely refined orchestral ruminations. Of course, having an instrument of such thoroughbred status as the LSO rather than the ROH’s poor old workhorse band doubtless makes a difference for him: but even allowing for this, it seems to me that Rattle now sees the opera as a much more emotionally turbo-charged business, with far more sharply delineated dramatic peaks and troughs. Personally, I prefer Salonen’s more integrated approach, but wouldn’t attempt to minimise the expertise with which Rattle realises his own higher-voltage concept, or the corporate skill of the orchestra in playing it. But some element of the baby does go out with the bathwater in all this: I have invariably been moved to tears by the end of Act V, which somehow seems to me to distil the dark, solitary sorrow of all human existence in music of ineffably restrained poise, but which here went for very little emotionally, I thought (though the accompanying static tableau of what we are meant to construe as three generations of child-abusers/abusees comforting each other – Arkel, Golaud and Yniold, even though the latter doesn’t appear in Debussy’s work after Act IV – could be at least as much to blame, I’m quite prepared to admit).

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I’ve always liked Magdalena Kožená, even if some of her repertoire choices – Cenerentola, Carmen – have struck me as bizarre. Mélisande is a role that conversely suits her to perfection, and which she sings with great distinction, beauty of tone and much feeling. But she overdoes the whole silent-screen “nervousness” bit – presumably with Sellars’ sanction (or indeed active encouragement) – and is in any case not such a fluent and natural stage performer that she can afford to be exposed to the extent that she is here, additionally landed with an entire gallery of hand-gestures that look anything but natural. True, her features are expressive and sympathetic: but they are obviously the result of being “worked” at. The contrast with Sandrine Piau’s heart-stopping (because simply heart-felt) Mélisande in 2014 could hardly be greater. Similarly, though Christian Gerhaher is widely regarded as one of the finest singers of the day, I can’t say his Pelléas tonight struck me as a patch on that of Stéphane Degout under Salonen, being neither as well sung – Gerhaher has pitch issues when forcing for expressive effect, which he does a lot, pushing the voice sharp – nor remotely as well acted. The fact that Salonen’s “lovers” were both native-born French speakers almost certainly has something to do with it, even though much of tonight’s French was recognisably first-rate: but there were also issues of basic audibility, as Sellars’ Personenregie frequently dictates that any duetting pair should face each other, singing in opposite directions out to either side of the platform over each other’s shoulders, leaving the audience with no direct frontal contact with them at all for entire stretches of music, at which point I can tell you that from the acoustic vantage point of Stalls Row M they could just as well have been singing either offstage or underwater.

Franz-Josef Selig’s Arkel – unaccountably left seated on stage for the rest of the 96’ first half though with nothing to do after his introduction early in Act I – was finely sung, the very aural avatar of avuncularity, though the semi-crippled gropings and grovellings he was obliged to execute in the second half (Acts IV and V) almost undid the impression, and certainly undermined the spiritual home truths he gets to expound at the end, though this isn’t of course his fault but Sellars’. Bernarda Fink’s Geneviève was vocally perfect, even when, as here, obliged to spend an entire act she doesn’t even appear in – the fifth – mumming away furiously on stage, nursing the dying Mélisande and determinedly keeping the baby out of both Arkel and Golaud’s clutches with basilisk stares of hatred. I’ve never understood the Tolz Boys’ Chorus’ practice of not naming any individual soloist: so, rather frustratingly, all I can do is salute the anonymous member thereof who sang a thoroughly effective and accurate Yniold (the Salonen performance’s only significant letdown, given to a buxom soprano in trousers).  (Editor’s note : we have since been informed that the boy soloist was Elias Mädler)

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Which leaves the performance’s absolute star turn, that of Gerald Finley as Golaud (just as it was at the ROH nigh-on nine years ago in the appalling Salzburg staging, although Angelika Kirchschlager’s Mélisande ran him very, very close). His voice remains in absolute pristine, peak condition, not a wrinkle anywhere to be detected on the surface of the sound, and so full of sense that the emotions would be crystal clear even if divorced from the specificities of the libretto. It is, funnily enough, exactly the sort of performance I was expecting (but didn’t really get) from Gerhaher: a natural lieder-singer’s minutely-detailed response to the text, flawlessly expressed through singing of exquisite refinement and beauty. Coupled with Rattle’s often incendiary way with the score, he made the whole event worthwhile, despite two somewhat underwhelming notional leads, and a largely nugatory “staging” that by itself wouldn’t merit more than 1* (and that out of a misplaced sense of charity). Oh, and kudos to whoever at the Barbican has finally realised that surtitles should never be projected in red (due to the Purkinje effect: look it up, or see my reviews passim) and has now recast them, in a clearer typeface, in triumphantly visible green.

3½ *

Stephen Jay-Taylor©2016

(Photos : Tristram Kenton)