“Pelléas et Mélisande” with Simon Rattle, Christian Gerhaher and Magdalena Kožená

20 Dec 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Magdalena Kožená, Bernarda Fink, Christian Gerhaher, Franz-Josef Selig, Gerald Finley, Elias Mädler, Peter Sellars

  • Claude Debussy
    Pelléas et Mélisande (semi-staged performance) (174 min.)

    Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano (Mélisande), Bernarda Fink Contralto (Geneviève), Christian Gerhaher Baritone (Pelléas), Franz-Josef Selig Bass Baritone (Arkel), Gerald Finley Bass Baritone (Golaud), Elias Mädler Boy Soprano, Soloist of the Tölzer Knabenchor (Yniold), Jörg Schneider Bass (Doctor), Sascha Glintenkamp Bass-Baritone (Shepherd), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Nicolas Fink Chorus Master, Peter Sellars Staging

  • free

    Peter Sellars in conversation with Sarah Willis (15 min.)

“All the stars are falling,” Pelléas sings in the fourth act of Claude Debussy’s Maeterlinck opera Pelléas et Mélisande. “On you and me!” Mélisande answers. A short time before, the two confessed their forbidden love to each other. What follows is the showdown: the couple sees – emerging from the darkness – Mélisande’s husband Golaud, rushing towards them with a drawn sword. Inflamed with rage, he strikes down his half-brother Pelléas, while Mélisande flees wounded.

A new chapter was opened in music history when Debussy’s drame lyrique was staged on 30 April 1902 at the Paris Opéra-Comique. For in the through-composed dramatic work, in which is told the strange story of the two lovers in a mysterious and timeless dream world, there are neither arias nor ensembles. And even the orchestral interludes are organically integrated into the whole – despite the fact that Debussy extended them to their current length only during rehearsals for the premiere, as in their original version they were not long enough for the necessary set changes. Their function is not only to usher the listeners from one scene to the next but also to articulate everything the sung text is not able to articulate. After all, Debussy had in mind for the composition “a dramatic form” in which “the music begins at the point where the word becomes powerless as an expressive force”.

Sir Simon Rattle, who debuted at the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden with Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande in April 2008, now conducts the symbolic masterpiece with “his” orchestra in a semi-staged production by Peter Sellars, the Philharmoniker’s Artist in Residence this season, whose stagings of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 2010 and St John Passion in 2014 were both overwhelming successes. Magdalena Kožená and Christian Gerhaher take on the title roles. The Canadian bass baritone Gerald Finley sings Golaud, while Bernarda Fink is heard as Geneviève and Franz-Josef Selig as King Arkel.

“‘Speaking’ French in Music”

Observations on Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

“I urge you most strongly to get hold of Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy … or his Chansons de Bilitis,” Romain Rolland wrote to Richard Strauss on 9 July 1905. “They are marvels of ‘speaking’ French in music, and true models of their kind.” A few days earlier, the German composer had asked the French writer and musicologist for advice on preparing a French-language version of his opera Salome, which he had just completed. Rolland soon realized, however, that Strauss not only had difficulties with Debussy’s prosody, which Rolland had recommended as a model, but with the entire work: “What completely escapes him (and that’s very natural) is the principal thing about this type of art: the restrained and supple truthfulness of the recitative, of the musical speech, with its imperceptible tremors, certain inflections of which are so suggestive, and evoke profound and distant echoes in our hearts.”

On the way to Pelléas

It is not surprising that Pelléas et Mélisande bewildered Strauss and many of his other contemporaries who were influenced by Richard Wagner’s music dramas. Debussy had already explained his ideas in 1889: “I am not tempted to imitate what I admire in Wagner. I visualize a quite different dramatic form … . I dream of poetic texts which will not condemn me to long, heavy acts, but which will provide me with changing scenes, varied in place and mood, where the characters do not argue but submit to their lives and destinies.” What Debussy envisioned in a conversation with his teacher Ernest Guiraud first had to be found, however. The libretto of the opera Rodrigue et Chimène, which Debussy worked on during the early 1890s but never completed, could not fulfil these wishes because of its traditional structure. In 1891 the composer believed he had discovered a suitable text in Maurice Maeterlinck’s La Princesse Maleine, but then learned that his countryman and colleague Vincent d’Indy had already secured the rights to set the work. Only on his third attempt did Debussy finally find the literary work with which he hoped to open a new chapter in the history of opera.

Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama

Maeterlinck’s lyric drama Pelléas et Mélisande was premiered at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens on 17 May 1893. Among those in the audience was the 30-year-old Debussy, who, after successfully completing the composition, later declared: “The drama of Pelléas, which, despite its dreamlike atmosphere, contains far more humanity than those so-called real-life documents, seemed to suit my intentions admirably. In it there is an evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and into the orchestral backcloth.”

The magical attraction that Maeterlinck’s text had for Debussy was not only due to the distinctive stylistic qualities of the writing, however, but also to the mysterious story. The composer could hardly have failed to notice that the lyric drama can also be understood as a symbolist version of the Tristanstory. The fateful love affair between the young Pelléas and the enigmatic Mélisande corresponds at least superficially to the love between Tristan and Isolde. Both relationships are illicit, since Mélisande is the wife of Pelléasʼs half-brother Golaud, while Tristan has wooed Isolde for his uncle Marke. Moreover, in both cases the forbidden passion ends in the death of the lovers. On the atmospheric level, however, Wagner’s ecstatic romantic drama and Maeterlinck’s stylized stage play are worlds apart. Whereas Wagner’s lovers seek eternal union in a sensual frenzy, Pelléas and Mélisande do not enter into a sustained dialogue, even at the moment of their declaration of love. Isolated and, in the case of Mélisande, overcome with an inexplicable sadness, they seem instead to resign themselves to a fate that neither they nor the audience can fathom.

Emerging from Wagner’s shadow

In order to escape unscathed from the dark and disturbing shadow of the Bayreuth master, Debussy used a dual strategy. In his writings he attempted to demystify the figure of Wagner with a witty polemical campaign and, at the same time, to historicize the works of his German colleague. In his compositions, on the other hand, he sought to break through Wagner’s power with a deliberate form of “counterresponse”. The elements of this compositional act of liberation included, for one thing, the eradication or toning down of overly obvious Wagner quotations and reminiscences. For example, the famous Tristan chord, which had crept into the score in several places, was either removed or “harmonically neutralized” by the composer and thus deprived of its anticipated effect. Secondly, Debussy’s music consciously distanced itself from the tonal dramaturgy of the Tristanscore, which is aimed at large-scale build-ups and overwhelming climaxes. An effective antidote was a dramatic device whose effect Debussy described to his friend and colleague Ernest Chausson: “I have found, and what is more, quite spontaneously, a technique which strikes me as fairly new, that is silence (don’t laugh) as a means of expression, and perhaps the only way to give the emotion of a phrase its full power.”

A particularly impressive example of the dramatic power which can result from a radical reduction of musical means is the moment in which Pelléas and Mélisande declare their love. Rather than setting this crucial point in the story as an extended frenzy of sound, Debussy silences the orchestra and has the lovers whisper their confession with unparalleled simplicity.

Mélisande’s death and Straussʼs bewilderment

Debussy’s aesthetic of silence reaches its actual culmination in the unusual treatment of Mélisande’s death. Here, as well, the composer decided to avoid every form of emotional exaggeration. A letter he wrote to the painter Henry Lerolle shortly after completing the first version of the work indicates that he reckoned with incomprehension on the part of many contemporary listeners: “Whenever a woman dies in the French theatre, it has to be like the Lady of the Camellias. … People can’t get used to the idea that one might take one’s leave discreetly like somebody who has had enough of planet Earth and is on his way to where the flowers of tranquillity bloom!”

Strauss was also one of the contemporaries who were perplexed by Mélisande’s silence and the dying tenderness of her gentle voice. In the diary entry quoted earlier, Rolland recounted their attendance at a performance of Pelléas in May 1907: “What is even more surprising is that the last scene escapes him completely. I myself consider it the height of emotion and art. I don’t believe that anything so intense and with such economy of resources has been produced in music since Monteverdi. It is really Racinean art. – So far as Strauss is concerned, it lacks music.”

Tobias Bleek

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Magdalena Kožená, was born in Brno (Czech Republic) and studied there at the local conservatory and also with Eva Blahová in Bratislava. A winner of many competitions, including the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg in 1995, her first engagements were at the Janáček Theatre of the National Theatre in Brno and at the Prague Spring International Music Festival. Since then, she has appeared in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet (in the female title role in Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice), at the Opéra Comique and at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées (Mélisande), at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (Varvara in Kátja Kabanová) and at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in productions of Der Rosenkavalier and the Chabrier opera L’Étoile. Well known for her interpretation of Mozart roles (Cherubino, Idamante, Sesto, Zerlina), Magdalena Kožená has appeared at many major festivals such as Edinburgh, Salzburg, Aldeburgh and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. She is also acclaimed world-wide as a concert and Lieder singer, accompanied by pianists such as Daniel Barenboim, Yefim Bronfman, Malcolm Martineau, András Schiff and Mitsuko Uchida as well as leading orchestras and conductors. In 2003, Magdalena Kožená was awarded the title “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French government; Gramophone voted her “Artist of the Year” in 2004. Since September 2003 she has performed many times as a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker and took part in Bach’s St Matthew Passion in April 2010 and October 2013 as well as 2014 in the St John Passion, equally staged by Peter Sellars. She most recently appeared with the orchestra in January 2015 in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

During his studies under Paul Kuen and Raimund Grumbach, German baritone Christian Gerhaher attended the Opera School of the Academy of Music in Munich and, together with his regular piano partner Gerold Huber, studied lied interpretation with Friedemann Berger. While completing his medical studies Christian Gerhaher perfected his vocal training in master-classes given by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Inge Borkh. He has appeared both at home and abroad both as a lieder recitalist and as a concert soloist with such leading orchestras as the Vienna, Munich and Berlin Philharmonics, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to his busy schedule in the world’s recital rooms and concert halls, he has also taken part in a number of opera productions that have included the title role in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Olivier (Capriccio) und Wozzeck. The magazine Opernwelt voted him “Singer of the year” in 2010 for his performance of the title role in Henze’s Prinz von Homburg. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons and Sir Simon Rattle. Christian Gerhaher has appeared many times with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in December 2003, when he took the part of the baritone soloist in Britten’s War Requiem under the direction of Donald Runnicles. As artist in residence in the 2013/14 season, the baritone gave several chamber concerts. With the orchestra he was last heard in Berlin in performances of Brahms’s German Requiem in January 2015, conducted by Christian Thielemann. Christian Gerhaher holds the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art, an honorary professorship in lieder interpretation at the Academy of Music in Munich and has also given masterclasses at Yale University, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and elsewhere. His lieder recordings with Gerold Huber as his accompanist have won many prizes, including a Gramophone Award in 2006 and 2015 as well as the German Record Critics’ Annual Award in 2010.

Bernarda Fink, was born to a Slovenian family in Buenos Aires, where she received her musical education at the Instituto Superior de Arte, which is part of the renowned Teatro Colón. In 1985 she moved to Europe. With a repertory that extends from early Baroque to the 20th century she performs regularly in opera, concert and recital at the major opera and concert venues as well as prominent festivals in Europe, Japan, Australia and the USA. Leading symphony orchestras and many early-music ensembles have invited her to participate in their concerts. In concert she performs with conductors including Daniel Barenboim, Herbert Blomstedt, Riccardo Chailly, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Riccardo Muti, Sir Simon Rattle and Franz Welser-Möst. She first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 1995 under the direction of René Jacobs with a concertante performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in the philharmonic chamber music hall. Since then Bernarda Fink has been making regular guest appearances in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker, most recently in November 2014 in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater under Sir Simon Rattle’s baton. In February 2006 the Austrian Chancellor honoured her with the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art; in 2013 she received the prize of the Prešeren Foundation, the highest Slovenian cultural distinction. Bernarda Fink holds the title of Österreichische Kammersängerin.

The Canadian baritone Gerald Finley began singing as a chorister in Ottawa and completed his musical studies at King’s College in Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music in London. His debut at the Glyndebourne Festival, where he played Sid in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, led to engagements at the world’s major opera and concert venues like the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Opéra National in Paris, the Vienna State Opera and to the festivals in Glyndebourne and Salzburg. In opera, Gerald Finley has sung all the major baritone roles of Mozart (particularly Don Giovanni and Figaro); in recent years, critical successes have been in the Wagner repertoire: as Hans Sachs at the Glyndebourne Festival, as Amfortas in Parsifal at Royal Opera Covent Garden, and as Wolfram at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. His extensive repertoire also includes works by Handel, Rossini, Bizet, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Korngold and Britten. In contemporary opera, Gerald Finley has excelled in creating leading roles such as Jaufré Rudel in Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin or Howard K. Stern in the 2010 world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole. Modern day composers who have written for Gerald Finley include Peter Lieberson (Songs of Love and Sorrow) and Einojuhani Rautavaara (Rubáiyát). As a recitalist, Gerald Finley works regularly with pianist Julius Drake, appearing throughout Europe and North America. In concert he performs with leading conductors including Sir Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Andris Nelsons and Sir Simon Rattle. Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1994, he has returned several times, most recently in December 2011 as Forester in the final scene of Leoš Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Franz-Josef Selig graduated in church music from the Cologne University of Music before changing to the vocal classes there by Claudio Nicolai. Early in his career, he was a member of the ensemble at the Essen Aalto Theatre for six years. Today, the freelance singer appears regularly in opera houses all over the world and at international festivals in the great bass roles of Gurnemanz, King Marke, Sarastro, Rocco, Osmin, Daland and Fasolt. Guest engagements have taken Franz-Josef Selig to London, Vienna and New York as well as to the Aix-en-Provence, Bayreuth and Salzburg festivals. He has worked with conductors such as James Levine, Christian Thielemann, Sir Simon Rattle, Marek Janowski, Semyon Bychkov, Riccardo Muti and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Despite his numerous concert and opera engagements, Franz-Joseph Selig finds time for recitals, where he is also to be heard as a member of the ensemble “Liedertafel” together with Markus Schaefer, Christian Elsner and Michael Volle with Gerold Huber at the piano. Numerous CD and DVD productions document the artistic versatility of the singer. The bass made his debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts in December 2013 in Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, conducted by Daniel Harding.

Peter Sellars, one of the most unconventional and innovative theatre and opera directors of our times, is this season’s artist in residence with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Central to his work on literary subjects is his desire to highlight their relevance to the political and social questions of today. On graduating from the Phillips Academy in Massachusetts in 1975, he studied literature and music at Harvard University, making his debut as a stage director in New York in 1980. After a further period of study in Asia, he became director of the Boston Shakespeare Company in 1983 and the following year was appointed director of the American National Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Sellars came to international attention as an opera director when his productions of Così fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni were broadcast on American television, leading to invitations to appear in major houses all over the world, including the Salzburg, Glyndebourne and Vienna Festivals, the San Francisco Opera and the Opéra National de Paris. He has championed the creation of many new works, with long-time collaborator John Adams, such as Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, and works by Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov and Kaija Saariaho. He has also run many leading festivals, including the Los Angeles Festival in 1990 and 1993, and the New Crowned Hope Festival as part of the Vienna Mozart Year celebrations in 2006. Peter Sellars is resident curator of the Telluride Film Festival. He has received numerous honours (MacArthur Prize and the Erasmus Prize among others) and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The collaboration between Sellars and the Berliner Philharmoniker began in April 2010 with the St Matthew Passion, followed by the St John Passion in 2014. Most recently, in November 2015, he presented Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone together with students of the Orchestra Academy conducted by Duncan Ward.

Magdalena Kožená appears by courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.

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