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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande
Christian Gerhaher – Pelléas
Magdalena Kožená – Mélisande
Gerald Finley – Golaud
Franz-Josef Selig – Arkël
Bernarda Fink – Geneviève
Joshua Bloom – Doctor, Shepherd
Elias Mädler – Yniold
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 9-10 January 2016, Barbican, London
LSO LIVE LSO0790 SACD/BD-A [165:47]

The arrival of Simon Rattle as the Music Director of the London Symphony has been one of the biggest (and most written-about) stories in UK classical music for many years. LSO Live have been falling over themselves to release recorded evidence that the partnership is a strong one, and I, for one, have found myself mostly convinced. Rattle hasn't ever recorded much opera, but this is by far the best example I've heard from him, better even than his 2012 Carmen. Based on this, his match with the LSO has the potential to be one made in operatic heaven.

I’ve admitted before that I sometimes struggle with Pelléas, and its ever-shifting sound world is one I often find uncomfortable. Rattle is a first-rate guide through it, though. He scored great successes with it in Stanislas Nordey’s production, both at Salzburg and at Covent Garden, and his experience with the piece on stage richly informs his grasp of it on record. The music of the opening, for example, seems to slither into being; sinuously, suggestively, slowly; creating a sound picture that is full of suspense and as much danger as erotic suggestion. It's a dark picture, however, and that means that some of the light gets lost – the delicate bleat of the violins when Golaud first sees Mélisande, for example – and all through their subsequent dialogue it's the cellos and violas that dominate. That’s also, overwhelmingly, the case for the all-important orchestral interludes which brood and stew. Even the fresh air of the sea in the third scene seems to creep in heavily, laden with fumes, giving little relief from the overall gloomy picture.

The mood lifts a little at start of the second act, mirroring the airiness of the scene in the garden where the couple are at play. The clouds soon gather again for the transition to Golaud’s sick bed, however. Rattle as it his most impressive when drawing the picture of the cave with the blind beggars: you can sense the reflections of the moonlight on the cave roof with the shimmering tremolos in the violins as well as the sinister walking figure in the violas. For the introduction to the tower scene he conjures up the most gorgeous night-picture, with glimmering harps, dark winds and deep pools of sound against which Kožená sings out her dangerously seductive lullaby. Then the enveloping darkness of cellar scene is like a living, breathing thing, which even seems to infect Finley’s voice, and the subsequent emergence into the sunlight isn't enough to dispel it utterly. There is a similar sense of a psycho-thriller in the transition into last scene of Act 4, and then the final act restores an atmosphere of stuttering decay.

All of which is to underline that Rattle really has something to say in this opera. This isn’t just a vehicle for the LSO or a solid reading of the notes: it’s an exciting, living account of the story and the score, worthy to stand alongside the reading of any conductor.

Happily, his singing cast are top notch too. Magdalena Kožená (Mrs Rattle, of course) brings out the character’s strange gaggle of contradictions in a way that makes her appear beautiful but even a little dangerous. There is a plangent quality to her voice when she first enters, but she's then dangerously coquettish during the scene at the well, and yet you believe her distress when she begs Golaud to take her away. She then becomes an arch temptress in the tower scene: this Mélisande is a vamp, and a dangerous one at that! But then an equally astonishing naïveté and innocence enters her voice in the final scene, which I found both moving and convincing. It’s remarkably successful, surely the finest operatic role Kožená has yet recorded.

She is partnered by the outstanding Christian Gerhaher, whose voice brings a beautiful delicacy to the role. With him, unlike any other adult character in the opera, there seems to be hope. There is extra urgency to his voice in the cave, as though his relationship with Mélisande has had an effect on him, and then in the tower scene he sounds completely smitten by her, as though he has fallen into her clutches.

The climax for the two of them, and arguably for the whole recording, comes in the last scene of Act 4. In a moment of thrilling subtlety, their confession of love is barely whispered. This draws from Gerhaher his most nuanced word-painting and from Kožená her most nuanced singing, and they reach an ecstatic climax that really thrills. Meanwhile Mélisande seems reduced virtually to silence in a way I'd never really noticed before, all the while Rattle drawing a dance of allure from the orchestra, who outdo themselves.

Finley plays Golaud as a wounded victim who undertakes a cycle of innocence through woundedness to malice and then remorse. The turning point, so clearly, comes when he learns that Mélisande has lost her ring, and I loved the way Finley turns on a sixpence from the understanding husband to anger of panting, manic intensity. He is plainly (and unaffectedly) baffled by their behaviour in the tower scene, clearly losing it during the scene with Yniold, to an extent that verges on the non-musical, and then he sounds defeated by still eaten up by his suspicion in the final act. Bernarda Fink is perfect for the role of Geneviève. She points up the dusky, faded side of her voice to highlight the character’s world-weariness so that even in her first act you get the impression that she is describing Allemonde as a dying kingdom that is fading into oblivion. That's also true of Franz-Josef Selig, though his Arkël more obviously radiates the authority of, say, a Gurnemanz, albeit in a faded, world-weary manner. Only Elias Mädler is unsatisfying: his Yniold is not convincing as a child, which is all the more of a shame because he is a child!

The packaging is luxurious, containing three CDs plus a luxury surround BDA, and the booklet contains full texts and translations, as well as biographies and George Hall’s essay. It’s live, but there is not a mite of audience noise and there is no applause retained. All told, this is an excellent recording, worthy to stand alongside any Pelléas of the stereo era. Let us all hope that it is also a sign of great things to come from this musical partnership or Rattle and his band.

Simon Thompson


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