Canadian baritone Gerald Finley has become a regular fixture at both of London's opera houses in recent years. He's performed the lead roles in operas such as Don Giovanni, The Queen of Spades, Le nozze di Figaro and The Pilgrim's Progress at the Royal Opera House, while his interpretation of Eugene Onegin at English National Opera attracted widespread critical acclaim.
He returns to Covent Garden on 11 May to play the role of Golaud in a new production of Debussy's Pélleas et Mélisande, directed by Stanislas Nordey and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. I caught up with Finley during rehearsals to find out how he's approaching the piece.
Debussy completed only one opera and as a result, his operatic style is less familiar to audiences than those of more prolific figures such as Verdi or Mozart. Finley has a very clear idea of what Debussy's strengths as an opera composer are, though.
'He was certainly not afraid to use the orchestra as a dramatic participant. It's been interesting to listen to Simon [Rattle] talking about playing Tristan and using the Wagnerian approach to get into Debussy, using motives in the orchestra or characters. It's helpful to me because when my music appears, I know I have to go onstage!' he jokes. 'There's a wonderful colouring in the orchestra that tells you about the characters; sometimes he tears apart the themes to tell you that the characters are falling to pieces in some way.
'Dramatically, there's lots of energy in the orchestra. The terrifying scene that I have with the boy is very menacing and brutal and has lots of racing heartbeats. The wonderful instances when Pélleas sings of light and there's a luminescence in the orchestra, or when Mélisande's hair falls over the balcony - there's always a sense of beautiful pictorial writing in the music. His objective was to make the singers be actors as much as singers, and that is something we've worked hard on because our director is a theatre director and an actor. The way the language is written and notated in the score means that it should be quite naturally declaimed. It makes it very honest - the characters have to be very honest in their delivery. He didn't want to write operas in the Verdian or Massenet tradition which surrounded him; he wanted to scrape all that away. He wanted the essence of the characters and conflicts to come forward. So there's lots of recitative style and not many arias. Some people may feel from an operatic point of view that that's frustrating because there are no great tunes for the singers; but Debussy compensates for that with these huge, lush waves - a sea of music underneath the whole time. For me, that's very refreshing. Yet there are enough fragments of tunes to make it satisfying. From an audience point of view, it means you get straight to the drama. You may not come out humming the tunes, but the drama is intensely coloured and vital.'
Pélleas et Mélisande is based on a mythical Symbolist play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck. The mythical element was central to Debussy's plan for his opera: when searching for a librettist for the piece, he wrote of his desire to find someone who would allow him to 'graft his dream onto theirs'. Finley explains that this new production deals with the myth in a very effective way. 'The production allows the mythic fable element to be revealed. The stage pictures are like the revelations of a sophisticated adult story book. The fabled kingdom of Allemonde that everyone except Mélisande inhabits is conjured up vividly - the costumes reflect an otherworldliness. She is in a particular costume which is very simple and the rest of us are in quite fancy outfits. It's an attempt to make it otherworldly. I think it succeeds in that regard, which is great. I hope in some ways that the audience will think 'Oh, they look ridiculous'. I hope they can understand that this isn't meant to relate to real life and people - it's a mythical presentation. It takes a theme from every scene - a line from each scene - and amplifies it. Some scenes literally have a line written in extremely large letters across the set, so that the essence of the scene is presented and that's the overall approach. We've enjoyed working on the production. It's stylised, with some Robert Wilson elements, just gestural movements. That can work with the music and can punctuate it too.
'Producers of Pélleas et Mélisande are challenged about how to treat it. In the 1950s, there was a desperation to make it real, and have doves flying about and lots of special effects. But we're interested in a more human story about people who don't know how to communicate with each other.'
Finley rehearsed this production at last year's Easter Festival in Salzburg, together with co-stars Simon Keenlyside and Angelika Kirchschlager (who return for the Royal Opera's presentation of it), though he fell ill and was unable to sing in any of the performances. He's also performed it in concert before. What brings him back to the character of Golaud? 'I'm the type of singer who likes to play characters who are generally liked!' he laughs. 'I started with Figaro and Papageno; these are roles that people enjoy seeing you do. But more recently I've realised that the baritone repertoire is much more full of tortured characters who are enormously enjoyable to do. They can't quite figure out what's wrong with their lives and they get clues from other people. Golaud's perfect for this. There's a history of what happens to the characters before the opera begins which is always being hinted at but is never quite explained. You get glimpses of it but don't know why things happen. Golaud is a man in mid life who is searching for some clarity. The way they live is very dark and miserable. He thinks he's found a source of life in Mélisande but somehow can't hold her. He can't grasp it. From their meeting onwards, the word that comes back again and again is 'Pourquoi?' - 'Why?'. 'Why can't I understand this?' He asks his son what's going on between his half-brother Pélleas, and Mélisande - resorting to desperate measures like asking a child! There's lots of psychological potential. His father is absent. His grandfather, Arkel, has a tough wisdom about him, but in the second scene Golaud talks of being frightened of his grandfather. So he has no strong male characters to turn to and there's lots of confusion - and I love it! Why is he behaving like this? Why is he feeling like this? What is driving him? Obviously he's a malevolent character and in the end he does some terrible things. But I want to portray the steps he takes and show the reasons for them.'
What does conductor Simon Rattle specifically bring to the piece? 'His instinctive musicianship and his ability to oversee an epic orchestral piece is perfect. The beauty of Debussy is his complicated orchestration, which needs to be finely brought out. Simon feels a strong need to bring out the structural arcs; it's a very symphonic piece in many ways. Simon's a dramatic and instinctive person - quite theatrical in himself - but what's wonderful is that he's willing to offer the singers the vehicle to project the intensity of the characters while he has a firm grip on where things are going. Hearing him conduct the orchestra in this music is incredible.'
Finley is returning to Covent Garden next year in the late Steven Pimlott's production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Given his declaration about wanting to play characters that people like, does he consider Onegin to be sympathetic? 'When you play a character, you ask yourself what experiences you might have in common. For Onegin, there are clues (in Pushkin especially) of how awful it was for him as a young man to sit and watch his uncle dying, day after day. It's almost the vision of youth saying 'I have no time for death, decay, collapse. I'm growing, I'm in the world, I want to have a feeling of success and enjoy the finer means of existence'. Was he trying to escape from something in his heritage? It's all about either achievement or a sense of posture - being able to rise above the mundane. He has an impression about country life being dull, without realising that when you engage in it, there is conviviality, loyalty and friendship. There's a sense that he's living life in an acquiring way, rather than a giving way. So Tatyana represents a finite point. He would feel trapped, in an emotional way, with her, and he would be stuck in a countrified social structure. His ambition far outweighs that. Of course, when he travels the world and has killed his best friend, Lensky - whom, interestingly, is a man of the countryside that he still feels able to call his friend - he realises that the world has nothing to offer and he has reached the end of his credit. So I do feel sympathy for him. It's a great production we're doing - I love the ice skating!'.
When I interviewed Jacques Imbrailo about his role in the current ROH production of Britten's Owen Wingrave recently, he mentioned how helpful Gerald Finley had been in preparing for the role. Is helping young singers important to him? 'It's vital. When I was a young singer, I had two problems. One was that I didn't have the courage to ask for help. The other is that I didn't feel that there was much of it about. Maybe I was just unlucky with the circumstances I had, or perhaps I didn't ask enough. But I really feel that we need each other in this profession. After twenty-five years' experience now, to see young singers making errors or taking steps which nobody has said anything to them about makes me want to help. I've been lucky with theatre directors and vocal coaches - in fact, I got better help as a professional adult singer, and I started to wonder why nobody told me various things before! To work with the younger singers now, right at the start, is perfect. They're thirsty and usually quick and diligent. Someone like Jacques is a joy to work with - very conscientious - and he does as well as he possibly can.'
Finley has a very clear vision for his conduct, both professionally and personally. 'I would like to be remembered for absolutely committing myself to be the best that I can, both as a singer and as a human being. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was a quote from George London, who is one of my heroes. He said that this profession - and this life - is tough, and when we want to make progress in the things that we want to do, we need to have a certain amount of luck. But luck is being prepared for opportunity. That's something I really believe.'