Sir Simon Rattle delivers Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with an ‘exceptionally refined understated ambiguity’

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Pelléas et Mélisande
PERFORMER: Magdalena Kožená, Christian Gerhaher, Gerald Finley, Bernarda Fink, Franz-Josef Selig, Elias Mädler, Joshua Bloom; London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: LSO 0790 (hybrid CD/SACD, plus Audio Blu-ray)


Pelléas et Mélisande requires deftness and subtlety. Sir Simon Rattle delivers, evoking Debussy’s half-lit, dappled colours and exceptionally refined understated ambiguity with apparent ease. The cast in this LSO Live set is strong, if not always entirely idiomatic. As in earlier productions, Magdalena Kožená’s Mélisande has a firm streak of red-blooded coquettish defiance that is effective, even if it belies the character’s customary blanched fragility. Christian Gerhaher’s Pelléas is similarly finely sung, if a little too knowing. Franz-Josef Selig and Bernarda Fink are a richly-toned Arkel and audibly anxious Geneviève respectively. Special plaudits should go to Gerald Finley, who chillingly conveys Golaud’s slide from caring pity to jealous, controlling menace.

The frisson here is not just that of audibly live performances, for the Barbican hosted a semi-staging by Peter Sellars, a fact curiously unacknowledged in the set. Nonetheless, there is the palpable sense of unfolding drama that is realised, not just imagined, the intense passions of Act IV erupting from the speakers. Rattle draws myriad nuances without ever losing sight of either the textural balance or the overall pacing. In his hands, for instance, the bassoons in the first Act II interlude are both prophetic of The Firebird and suggest the start of Golaud’s descent into darkness. Every moment counts.

All of this is only possible thanks to the inspired playing of the London Symphony Orchestra under Rattle, with superb characterisation from the woodwind, while the strings seemingly resonate from within – full-bodied one moment, translucent the next. Moreover, the recorded sound is typically outstanding, especially in surround. All bases are covered, the opera being presented on three hybrid SACDs or a single Blu-ray Audio disc, making this a sonically luxurious set at a bargain price. 


Christopher Dingle