Debussy’s Light Shines In ‘Pelléas’ By Sellars, Berlin

Magdalena Kožená is Mélisande in the Peter Sellars production at the Berlin Philharmonic. (Monika Rittershaus)
Magdalena Kožená is Mélisande in Peter Sellars’ semi-staged Berlin Philharmonic production, to be streamed Dec. 19.
(Concert photos by Monika Rittershaus)
By Rebecca Schmid

BERLIN – In an age dominated by hyperactive stagings, it is sobering to see an opera production that seeks to connect with the essence of a musical score. The Berlin Philharmonic, this season featuring the director Peter Sellars as artist-in-residence, on Dec.16 premiered a semi-staging of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande that reaffirms the orchestra as a main character. An upcoming performance is being broadcast live on the internet Dec. 19 at 2 p.m. EST in the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall.

Mélisande (Kožená) with Pelléas (Gerhaher) at her perch in the forest.
Mélisande (Magdalena Kožená) and Pelléas (Chrstian Gerhaher) at her forest perch.

As seen at the Philharmonie, the players are lit from above and on the edges of the hall with clusters of light beams (designed by Ben Zamora). A single black platform – Mélisande’s perch in the forest where Golaud finds her in the opening scene and, ultimately, her death bed – sits between the first and second violins.

As per Debussy’s description of his ideal orchestral layout, Philharmonic artistic director Simon Rattle makes unusual choices, such as placing the clarinets within the low strings. “Scatter the woodwind… so that their intervention is something other than the falling of a package,” said the composer in 1908, perhaps with regard to Pelléas. (He also made the radical suggestion that the strings create “a circle around the other instruments.”) Cast in dim, eerie lighting, the orchestra in Sellars’ new production veritably becomes the forest that opens Act I, as oboe, English horn, and clarinet triplets undulate above bare double basses.

Re-seated and bathed in light, the orchestra becomes the main character.
Re-seated, re-balanced, and bathed in light, the orchestra became a main character.

The instrumental mix produces unusually defined contours, sinuous but rich. Even when the orchestra swelled, it remained sleek, perhaps a testament to the way that Rattle has streamlined the texture of a so-called traditional German orchestra. While the arrangement did not always make for the cleanest entrances – on more than one occasion, the strings were just a hair’s breadth out of sync with one another – it hardly mattered, given the emotional intensity of the performance and Rattle’s sensitive balance with the singers.

The most valuable aspect of placing the vocalists within the orchestra is the ability to focus on small instrumental details that are so dramatically telling, from the harp tritone that follows Mélisande’s statement that her “hair is longer than my arms…, than myself” in the first act, to the tubular bell that chimes after her death. Much as in the Maurice Maeterlinck play from which Debussy fashioned his libretto, every musical motive can be read as a symbol. By blending absolute music with theatrical abstraction, Sellars’ production does not attempt to superimpose meaning on any given moment.

Golaud (Gerald Finley) and Pelléas (Gerhaher) in the 'forest.'
Golaud (Gerald Finley) and Pelléas (Gerhaher) in the upper reaches of the Philharmonie.

On the other hand, the singers at times occupy the foreground with explicit gestures. In the Act IV scene in which Golaud sarcastically remarks that “the angels of heaven hold endless baptisms” in Mélisande’s eyes, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená widened her sockets until they could stretch no further. It may have been all the more difficult to take such theatrical stylization seriously given Sellars’ ingenious ability to break the third wall in other instances. Scenes such as the Act III exchange between the brothers Golaud and Pelléas in the castle vault take place on the balconies of the Philharmonie, blurring the line between stage and audience.

The building was particularly conducive to the scene in which Golaud forces his son, Yniold, to spy on Mélisande and Pelléas. As he peered down from the top balcony, it was if everyone in the audience became a voyeur, too.

Golaud persuades Yniold to spy for him.
Crafty Golaud (Finley) forces innocent Yniold (Elias Mädler) to spy from the heights.

The Canadian baritone Gerald Finley imbued the role of Golaud with a presence at once menacing and tender, perfectly true to Maeterlinck’s text. As Mélisande, Kožená anchored the evening with a burnished timbre, authentic French speech rhythms, and a deadly mix of seduction and vulnerability. Less convincing despite his impeccably smooth baritone was Christian Gerhaher, as Pelléas, due to his stilted French pronunciation. Bass Franz-Josef Selig performed with resonant tone and polished diction as King Arkel, and mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink brought warmth to the role of Geneviève, mother of Golaud and Pelléas. Soprano Elias Mädler of the Tölzer Boys Choir impressed with his bell-like high range and confident stage presence as Yniold.

Much like Mélisande’s newly born infant, whom Arkel declares will have to live on in her place, it is Yniold who represents the hope for renewal in a patriarchal society that undoes both those who are caught up in the system and those who chafe against it. In the final measures of the opera, Sellars has the boy walk onstage and hug Golaud, who is bound in handcuffs. That such a simple gesture could be so immediate and moving only reaffirmed the director’s ability to touch at the core of human struggle, all the while without overwhelming the shimmer of violins and flutes in the final measures.

Performances continue through Dec. 20. For more information, click here.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.

cond from left, takes a bow with the 'Pelléas et Mélisande' cast and creative team at the Philharmonie.
Peter Sellars, second from left, takes a bow with Simon Rattle, third from left, the cast, and creative team.