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DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande

CD Button Kožená, Fink; Gerhaher, Finley, Selig, Bloom, Mädler; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Rattle. Text and translation. LSO Live CD 0790 (3)

Recordings Pelleas Cover 218
Critics Choice Button 1015 

TO THIS LIVE CONCERT performance, from London’s Barbican Hall in 2016, the conductor, Simon Rattle, brings immediacy and dramatic vigor. But it’s Gerald Finley, as Golaud, who dominates the recording. In the opening scene, the character’s reactions on discovering Mélisande are so vivid that the heroine is eclipsed. This Golaud’s overwhelming attraction to the young woman is emphasized both in his heated exclamations and in unusual details, such as his audible laughter at her deadpan responses. In Acts II and III, his frustration and annoyance at her quiet rebellion become almost excessive, helping to prepare the way for the violence of Act IV, which in some performances seems too radical a departure in style. If Finley’s singing lacks old-school refinement, his characterization is formidable. In the almost melodramatic final scene, the way he courts ugliness is downright brave.

The tragic drama—Golaud’s drama, in this version—is abetted by Rattle’s propulsive pacing and his ability to keep the listener on edge. In this tense Allemonde, far less courtly than usual, exchanges between characters feel taut and ready to ignite, whether the confrontation in Act II between husband and wife, the tower episode in Act III or especially the shattering Act IV.

The focus on Golaud, on passion and action, does come at the expense of other elements, such as the “impressionist” orchestral atmospherics and the beguiling riddles of Mélisande’s character. Magdalena Kožená contributes to this skewed emphasis; her mezzo tone lacks the gleam, focus and ideal pliancy that can make memorable the heroine’s delicacy, caprice and reticence. The Act III duet is mercurial, ranging from sensuous lower tones to ineffectual, pro-forma protests and panic. Even on her deathbed, she sings at close to full voice.

Christian Gerhaher’s Pelléas is also contrarian. His operatic singing has the mastery and variety heard in his lieder interpretations, along with a playful but urgent youthfulness. But it becomes difficult to reconcile his swift, vibrant Pelléas with his mother’s comment “He has been weeping,” Golaud’s accusations of immaturity or Arkel’s sense of the young man’s vulnerability—“one who will not live long.” Tender lines in the duets with Mélisande are bewitching, and his French has a natural, pointed flow, but strenuous passages, perhaps because of the conductor’s driving tempos, sound uncontrolled.

Bernarda Fink (Geneviève) and Franz-Josef Selig (Arkel) are very effective amid a cast weak in Debussy style and French diction. The awkward, boyish-sounding Elias Mädler, as Yniold, adds realism, but on repeated hearing the rough edges become a liability. Rattle’s demystified Pelléas will probably not please purists, but his dynamism and emphasis on more traditional operatic values could persuade a wider audience to give Debussy a chance. —David J. Baker 

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