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Pelleas and Melisande by Edmund Blair Leighton [Photo © Williamson Art Gallery & Museum courtesy of BBC]
17 Jul 2012

BBC Prom 3: Pelléas et Mélisande

21st-century opera played on period instruments; a ‘drama-less’ opera; a Dali-esque crimson chaise longue, stranded on the platform of the Royal Albert Hall.

Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

Pelléas: Phillip Addis; Mélisande: Karen Vourc’h; Golaud: Laurent Naouri; Arkel: Sir John Tomlinson; Geneviève: Elodie Méchain; Yniold: Dima Bawab; Shepherd/Doctor: Nahuel Di Pierro. Monteverdi Choir. Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London. Prom 3, Sunday 15 July 2012.

Above: Pelleas and Melisande by Edmund Blair Leighton [Photo © Williamson Art Gallery & Museum courtesy of BBC]


Not, one might think, a recipe for success, but this stunning concert performance of Debussy’s enigmatic opera Pelléas et Mélisande under the baton of Sir John Eliot Gardiner repeatedly trounced expectations and preconceptions.

‘Nothing happens’ is one charge sometimes levelled at Pelléas et Mélisande; but while it’s true that literal ‘action’ and physical movement are restrained, the opera matches The Turn of the Screw in its gradual but incessant escalation of emotional intensity to an almost unbearable concentration of passion. And, as in Britten’s opera, it is principally the orchestra which elucidates the affecting and disturbing upsurges of emotion, and their tragic, poignant consequences.

Eliot Gardiner demonstrated a masterly appreciation of the way the subdued sonorities and gentle articulation of period instruments could perfectly convey the shadowy elusiveness and obscurities of Debussy’s score. The instrumental fabric was beautifully blended: orchestral motifs — such as the oboe’s opening arabesques depicting Mélisande’s elusive diffidence — were gracefully etched; delicate, half-whispered gestures, bloomed into swelling torrents of sound. The combination of control and flexibility was impressive as the shifting tonal colours, floating modulations, rhythmic elasticity, half-cadences and flowing, interweaving inner parts conjured a darkly brooding restlessness. The short scenes never seemed fragmented; instead, an air of timelessness was created as we moved from dark forest to enchanted well to gloomy castle. The transition from the second to third scenes in Act 3, as we rose from the subterranean castle vaults to the glaring daylight of the castle terrace was exhilarating.

Initially, the soloists — dressed in standard, modern evening attire — seemed a little unsure whether this was to be a stationary concert performance or a more dynamic semi-staged presentation. Rarefied and enigmatic the opera may be, but detachment and aloofness can be taken too far: it makes little sense for two characters engaged in an intense but hushed exchange of allusive, suggestive remarks to be placed on opposite sides of the stage, or for one to speak to the back of the other. However, movement and gesture gradually became both more natural and more imaginative; this was in no small part due to the engaging physicality and sensuousness of Karen Vourc’h’s Mélisande. Her brief syllables of song as she combed her hair at the window in Act 3 throbbed with impulsive energy and joy. She also revealed here her reserves of vocal strength, which for much of the evening she kept under wrap, preferring to employ a more muted but excited breathless tone to convey Mélisande’s inscrutable vulnerability. In fact, occasionally she seemed a little underpowered in the vast arena, but as one would expect of a native speaker, Vourc’h’s diction was crystal clear and the text elegantly shaped, the deliberate ordinariness of Maeterlinck’s language deepening the obscurity of its meaning.

Canadian baritone, Phillip Addis, was equally at home with the French text; indeed, many of the exceptional cast were first assembled at the Opéra Comique in 2010, and there was a confidence and strong sense of familiarity about the whole performance. Addis was suitably fresh and lithe of voice as a youthful, athletic Pelléas: innocently fervent and bright of tone to begin with, he grew to a fiery outpouring of love in the Act 4 love duet, finding the ideal timbre to negotiate the high range.

Both vocally and physically Laurent Nouri had enormous presence; even when seated he projected consummate authority and self-assurance. His powerful bass-baritone was subtly graded and coloured in a reading that confirmed that it is Golaud as much as the lovers who are tortured by his cruelty.

Sir John Tomlinson’s Arkel was resonant but not without a fitting fragility. Elodie Méchain possesses a pure, ringing contralto, and her lyrical projection of Geneviève’s declamation was truly moving. A gamine, sweet-toned Dima Bawab was convincing as Yniold.

The will be plenty of hyperbole, bombast and bravado during this ‘Olympic’ Promenade season; but, on this evening Eliot Gardiner reminded us of the genuine potency of refined understatement.

Claire Seymour

Click here for streaming audio of this performance.

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