Pelléas et Mélisande works uncommonly well in the concert hall. Debussy’s symbolic tragedy takes as its starting point the belief that “music begins where words are powerless”. The characters, with the exception of Arkel, lack insight into their own natures, and the opera consequently thrives on ambivalences of meaning and psychological motivation. Recent productions have made it too specific, which limits its depth of ambiguity. This marvellous performance gave us the greatest possible sense of its complexity and range.
Louis Langrée conducted the Orchestre de Paris here, establishing at the outset the mood of threatened beauty on which the piece depends. Textures were exquisite yet dangerous, inhabiting borderline territory between sensuousness and sensuality. But suspicion and rage lurked in the sudden rasp of low strings or baleful woodwind. The climactic love scene pushed, briefly and overwhelmingly, towards the edge of obscenity.
The cast also delved with exceptional insight into the paradoxes Debussy uses to characterise his protagonists. Simon Keenlyside’s Pelléas was naive yet insistently sexual, while Natalie Dessay’s Mélisande radiated both manipulative self-will and vulnerability. The great Laurent Naouri, Dessay’s husband in real life, played Golaud as a man whose deep sincerities are slowly corroded by suspicion. Alain Vernhes’s low-key Arkel reminded us that we should not necessarily take his oracular pronouncements on the nature of existence at face value, as some interpreters are wont to do. Only Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Geneviève, younger than most, failed to achieve the same level of subtlety, though her performance did not detract from the haunting impact of the evening.
Successful stage productions of Debussy’s opera are rare beasts, partly due to the elusive nature of Maeterlinck’s will-o’-the-wisp plot and partly because opera directors often feel compelled to make it ‘interesting’. In most cases, slapping a concept onto Pelléas et Mélisande is like fitting a saddle to a gazelle, which is what makes the prospect of a strongly cast concert performance, untrammelled by directorial vanity, doubly attractive.
In this visiting performance from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, the central trio were played with the utmost skill and definition. Simon Keenlyside’s excitable Pelléas and Laurent Naouri’s gaunt, haunted Golaud vied for the affections of a Mélisande who, in Natalie Dessay’s portrayal, was both inscrutable sphinx and fragile sprite. Dessay’s contained interpretation was every bit as scrupulous as her more famously showy appearances as, say, Marie or Lucia, for the character of Mélisande is fundamentally a lexicon of unanswered questions and the enigma of her being is what drives the drama. Naouri (Dessay’s real-life husband), on the other hand, used every muscle of his mobile face to turn the concert platform into a theatrical stage with a reading that displayed the most detailed understanding of his role. Golaud’s explosion of jealousy in Act Four was hair-raising, yet throughout the evening Naouri’s gradual creation of a fundamentally good man had earned such sympathy that he was able to touch the heart in Act Five with his lament, ‘Je t’ai fait tant de mal, Mélisande’.
Keenlyside, singing in impeccable French, opted for youthful passion over fervent adoration in order to point up the contrast between the two half-brothers’ relationship with the strange young woman. Here again, the characterisation was precise, for presenting Pelléas as a hothead enhances his innocence in playful love scenes and makes him less likely to ask probing questions of the enigmatic Mélisande.
Debussy weaves the poetry of Maeterlink’s text so closely into the fabric of his sound world that the opera benefits hugely when, as here, the cast is predominantly francophone. Every minor role was sung and characterised with wonderful definition. Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Alain Vernhes gave stylish accounts as Geneviève and old Arkel respectively, while any disappointment that Yniold would not be sung by a treble was swept aside by Khatouna Gadelia’s convincingly boyish performance.
On the podium, Louis Langrée trod a middle path between the romanticism of Karajan and the asceticism of Boulez. The visual impact of for once seeing the musicians at work on Debussy’s filigree orchestration was theatre in itself, and the conductor’s attention to balance was meticulous, given that Debussy’s orchestra had moved from pit to stage. Langrée didn’t so much support the singers as cradle them; only in the ravishingly played interludes did he allow the Orchestre de Paris to let rip.
In a preface to Pelléas, Debussy himself wrote that “by a strange irony, a public which demands ‘something new’ is the very audience that is baffled and contemptuous whenever someone tries to draw them away from their humdrum habits”. That may explain the solitary, moronic boo at the end of this marvellous account of a great and profound score.
Last night, the Barbican gave us Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande given by forces fresh from the Theatre des Champs Elysee in Paris, though unusually the French performances were concert performances as well so on this occasion we weren’t missing out. The prime attraction of the performance was to hear a French orchestra, French conductor and primarly Francophone cast. Even in France it seems increasingly rare to hear mainly French singers in French repertoire. Debussy’s opera is very much about declamation of text and having Francophone singers is an enormous help. When those singers are of the calibre of Natalie Dessay (Melisande), Laurent Naouri (Golaud) and Alain Vernhes (Arkel), then we are in heaven.
Of the principals the only non-French speaker was Simon Keenlyside, but I’m certainly not complaining. Genevieve was played by Marie-Nicole Lemieux, from Quebec (so Francophone but not French).
In terms of realism, there were things that needed forgiving; after all not all of the principals were anywhere approaching the right age. But what matters is how they suited vocally and here we were seeing a good match. Dessay, though not quite as coloratura as she once was, is still mainly a lyric soprano and has a beautifully fine, focussed tone which conveyed Melisande’s youth and beauty. For the first 3 acts she seemed a little too arch, a little too chic, perhaps, but as the drama developed then this mattered less.
Though this was a pure concert performance, all of the singers conveyed much with little. There were entrances and exits, but mainly we relied on the expressiveness of the singers faces. Sometimes this results in a boringly impassive performance, but with 5 fine singing actors in the lead roles then we didn’t really need much else. Having overwhelmed with her over the top Orlando (in Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso), Lemieux showed that she can be richly subtle as well, singing Genevieve with dignified melancholy.
Keenlyside was a profoundly moving Pelleas, full of humanity. Yes, he’s getting a little old for the role, but who cares when its sung like this. His relations with Dessay’s Melisande quivered beautifully with unspoken depths. That is the delight of this opera; the dialogue is matter of fact and natural, but much is implied and requires a sort of restraint from the singers. Something all of them understood, under Langree’s capable direction.
For me, the outstanding performance was Naouri’s Golaud. Expressive from the very beginning, shading melancholy into madness, but always human. In an evening of rich subtletly, Naouri won the palm with a performance which was complete without any movement, set or costume.
Alain Vernhes was a fine Arkel, rising to the challenge in his final scenes to give a sympathetic performance.
Khatouna Gadelia was a charming Yniold, conveying simplicity without too much archness, which is always tricky with a mature woman singing the role of a boy. Nahuel di Pierro displayed a lovely rich bass voice as the shepherd and the doctor, I look forward to hearing more of him.
The stage was very full, with the Orchestra de Paris in fine form. They no longer sound distinctively French, but their grasp of the music was strong and all Debussy’s interludes told strongly in this concert performance without visual distraction.
The opera start at 6.30pm and finished at 9.45pm with 1 interval. Surely someone at the Barbican could have organised things a bit better. 6.30pm is far too early for a week night concert, but is excusable in a long evening. If we had to start at 6.30pm then couldn’t we have a second interval. Pelleas et Melisande is a 5 act work and performing the first 3 acts without an interval is a very long sit. Perhaps, as it was her birthday, Dessay had requested an early finish so she and Naouri (her husband in real life) could go out to dinner!
A superb evening. A fine, subtle performance of one of the 20th century’s greatest operas, perhaps greatest opera.
“I am like a blind man looking for treasure at the bottom of the ocean.” This cry, wrenched from the soul and guts of Golaud, is an emotional turning point in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. His misery is absolute, his jealousy all-consuming and primordial. He seeks unbearable confirmation of his wife’s adultery with his brother from the worst possible witness, a child (Yniold): What have you seen? What do Mummy and Uncle Pelléas talk about? Are they ever alone? Do they cry? Do they kiss? How do they kiss?
In Maeterlinck’s occluded 1893 drama, all gauze and counter-suggestion, we never get precise answers. Debussy set a reduced version of this cultish, symbolist play in 13 scenes with orchestral interludes. No opera is quite like it, in compositional method or insistent impact. Its erotic preoccupation with water, forests, light, the moon was lampooned by the anti-aesthete brigade in Debussy’s day and even now irritates the pernickety. At times, notably in a bad production, you want to shake the characters and say: “Just get on with it, whatever it is.” Debussy might have answered: “It is all there in the music.”
This is true to an extent, as the Barbican’s concert performance (in association with the Théatre des Champs-Elysées) reminded us. Exquisitely played by the Orchestre de Paris and conducted with a perfectly judged balance of instinct and precision by Louis Langrée, this was a plain account, with no attempt at semi-staging. Some will have minded this pared-down effort, yet it suited the work and made it all the more taut and concentrated – and elusive.
It might even be argued, perversely, that the temporal and physical abstraction of such a concert event, where the position of a singer on the platform gives no clue as to the drama, merely intensifies the work’s disembodied nature. Pelléas and Mélisande conduct their mysterious affair yards apart, with the conductor and Golaud in the middle. The minute you pin down the action with scenery and costumes, it takes on too literal a feel. How can you represent what is almost totally in the mind? This is why Glyndebourne’s classic Graham Vick staging, unexpectedly set in a claustrophobic bourgeois drawing room without a diaphanous lake or silvery moonbeam in sight, worked so brilliantly. Let us hope they bring it back once more for a new generation of opera-goers.
At the Barbican, baritone Laurent Naouri’s superlative Golaud became the focus of the action, a vortex draining all the swirling emotion into its black-hole thrall. His physical stillness and ashen expression conveyed torment, but his range of vocal nuance and subtlety was formidable and endlessly varied. In those unearthly, high head-voice moments, he epitomised despair. He is the one practical, earthbound, flesh-and-blood figure in this sickly drama: he labours, tends the castle, has ordinary, mortal feelings of sexual jealousy. He begins as a good man and is driven to clumsy evil. We understand him more than the other two in the triangle.
We know, from her gamine acrobatics in La fille du régiment, quite apart from anything else, that the magnificent Natalie Dessay can act to Oscar level when she wants. Here, she dared to do the opposite: almost zero. This suits Mélisande, an empty vessel in whom, somehow, the entire opera is poured. Performing from a score, as were her fellow singers, she kept all expression to a minimum.
Dessay’s voice, blenched, scorched, tantalising, girlish, whimsical, suddenly opened into full-throated passion for the unaccompanied passage in the Rapunzel hair scene, ululating like a muezzin then retreating again, as suddenly as she burst forth. Simon Keenlyside, suffering from an injured arm but in outstanding vocal health, dared to be ardent and desperate as Pelléas, a fine counterbalance and foil to both Mélisande and Golaud, yet still unknowable. The bright-toned Khatouna Gadelia (Yniold), Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Alain Vernhes and Nahuel Di Pierro completed an expert cast.
At the end, after a long silence as Langrée held up his arms to allow the work to resonate, someone near the front emitted a raucous boo. As well as being inexplicable, it was a gesture of brutality because so visible and personal (unlike opera-house boos, where distance and a curtain make it just about permissible sport rather than, as here, a form of hooliganism). The players, just feet away, looked wounded, if not shocked. The rest of the audience showed their enthusiasm, and after the cheers sang “Happy Birthday” to Ms Dessay, who was presented with a bouquet by her husband. He just happened to be the man she’d been cheating on all evening: Golaud himself.
An unwilling and distinctive Wagnerian influence hangs over Pelléas like musk: the love potion, the old king, the illicit love, to say nothing of the more complex workings of the harmony and word setting. As with so many French fin-de-siècle artists, Debussy started out a crazed Wagnerian “to the pitch of forgetting the simplest rules of courtesy”, as he put it. He attended, among other events, the first French performance of Die Walküre, though his enthusiasm later turned to loathing. Debussy, in turn, had an influence on Berg in his own choice of a play set to music, Wozzeck.
These two works, Die Walküre and Wozzeck, were the centrepiece of this year’s Festtage, the annual festival which runs in Berlin between Palm Sunday and Easter. The Staatsoper, temporarily installed in Charlottenburg while its Under den Linden home is rebuilt, gave the second part of a new Ring cycle in co-production with La Scala, Milan, confusingly directed by Guy Cassiers and triumphantly conducted by Daniel Barenboim (who was neither playing in the Turbine Hall nor sorting out the Middle East this week – as far as one could tell).
It was an evening of mixed media and arguably even more mixed metaphors: via video projections we see a baronial home and hearth; a portcullis which, as it is lowered, turns into a green forest; red fishing lines representing dead heroes; and a turmoil of horses looking horribly reminiscent of this month’s Grand National cataclysm in slow motion. Wotan, beautifully and sympathetically sung by René Pape, wears a shiny suit. The Valkyries modelled their usual bike-chick catwalk wardrobe of black leather, blond braids and a fishnet bustle. Brunhilde’s fiery rock is inflamed by a nestle of red glass ceiling lights. I’m sure I’ve seen that sort in Homebase.
And yes, there were boos. All may come together once the cycle is complete, ready for the 2013 Wagner anniversary. I’ll hold my breath. The entire cast, which included Simon O’Neill and Yvonne Fuchs as Siegmund and Sieglinde, with Iréne Theorin as Brunhilde, was solid in the best sense of every note being secure, and often exciting.
Wozzeck reached a different level of dramaturgical intelligence. Directed with minimal props and maximum physicality by Andrea Breth (who will direct Lulu in next year’s festival), it was a tour de force, with Roman Trekel impeccable as a wan, heartbreaking, almost gormless Wozzeck, and Nadja Michael’s Marie careless, febrile and bewitching. Orchestra and onstage band brought Berg’s lurching waltzes and drunken marches to cruel life. In the cool intimacy of the revamped 1950s Schiller theatre, which holds only 900, each note glistened.
Hilary Finch, The Times, 21.4.2011
Aforest of brightly lit brass and a sea of violins is not, perhaps, what Debussy had in mind when he began work on the Symbolist play by Maeterlinck that was to become the shadowy, aquaeous music-drama of Pelleas et Melisande. In the full glare of light, the Orchestre de Paris took their places in the Barbican Hall, and Louis Langree raised his baton for a concert performance of Debussy’s opera.
With music-stands and scores in full view, there was no attempt even at semi-staging. But the aching distance between Natalie Dessay’s diminutive Melisande, stage left of the conductor, and the Pelleas of Simon Keenlyside, to his right, was more than eloquent in itself. And, with this dream casting and the most vividly idiomatic playing from these Gallic players, the drama of the lovers, “sleepwalking round the traps set by destiny” as Pelleas himself has it, was as powerfully played out as any I have seen on stage.
Dessay’s soprano — more often heard in Baroque or bel canto — seemed the very epitome of the vulnerable, timid, yet ardent soul of Melisande. From her childlike, tearful murmurings, to the sensuousness of her unaccompanied, hair-tangling rapture in Act III, Dessay entirely embodied the role. As did Simon Keenlyside, the highly-strung emotional vulnerability of Pelleas, his musical nerve-system as quick and sentient as that of a young animal. With his arm in an aptly medieval-looking thonged sling, Keenlyside was undeterred from an impassioned identification with the simplicity and colour of Pelleas’s image-rich writing. His final cry of “Je t’aime!” seemed the natural and inevitable culmination of his entire performance.
The long journey of his dark and haunted half-brother, Golaud, towards an uncertain epiphany was revealed in an extraordinarily subtle and searching performance by Laurent Naouri. His entire body, arms hanging long and limp by his side, seemed wearied by the weight of his destiny. And his inky baritone incarnated his impotent search for an only semi-lit awareness. This Arkel was impressive, too. Alain Vernhes rose to the eloquence of wisdom as he pondered on la tristesse, which would lie in wait for the child Yniold, sung with bright-eyed plangency by Khatouna Gadelia. Even the small role of Genevieve was cast from strength in the compellingly energised declamation of the Quebec-born contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux.
Opera directors have tied themselves, and their audiences, up in knots in their approaches to Debussy’s symbolist masterpiece, with some wayward results – so this back-to-basics concert performance proved yet again that the drama is all there is the music. It was given additional fluency by the predominantly French singers and players, and came on the back of two performances given in Paris.
You’d think that it would be hard going for the listener to be on the cusp for three hours between the opera’s shifting expressive allegiances of words and music, without the support of visual aids, but in a performance as focused as this, with the drama reduced to a few gestures and glances, all the components of the opera – the relationships and the elemental importance of water, light and nature – found their virtual reality in the music with consummate ease. It was a performance that embraced the paradoxes that make this shadowy work so powerful, that ungraspable blend of extreme evanescence and extreme tension.
Two of the cast – Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri – are fairly fresh from Laurent Pelly’s recent production, and Simon Keenlyside is a seasoned Pelléas. By all accounts, Naouri was a formidable Golaud in the staged performance, and there were many times when his account here would have justified renaming the opera after him. It circles around him, and, of the three main characters, Golaud changes the most. Naouri was superbly sympathetic, far from the brute force of some stagings, capturing Golaud’s subliminal optimism and authority at the start of his half-understood love for Mélisande, and totally eviscerating and tragic as jealousy and rage take over – the scene in which he physically attacks Mélisande was so intense that visual verification would have been otiose. His dark, supple baritone and conflicted presence caught all the flickering nuances of the role in a compelling, indeed revelatory performance, which the capacity audience took to its heart.
Keenlyside’s high baritone, in telling, caressing contrast to Naouri, was singularly appropriate for Pelléas, and his still-youthful presence was a touching reminder of the enclosed, solipsistic nature of artless passion. There was an otherworldly ferocity to his singing in the Act Two scene where he is ’playing’ with Mélisande, and the love scene was perfectly paced. “All the stars are falling”, he sings, and our defences fell with them.
Dessay’s Mélisande was similarly convincing and natural, all-the-better to express the opposition of Mélisande’s passivity, arousal and innocence. Dessay paced herself well, so that the difference between her half-voice, interior singing at the start and her first, full outburst when she literally lets her hair down was shockingly effective. The clarity and simplicity of her singing gave the shadowy allusions of the words terrific resonance.
Alain Vernhes sang the role of Arkel with touching compassion, and strong singing and characterisation from Marie-Nicole Lemieux (also in the Pelly production) made you wish that Geneviève was a bigger role than it is. I loved Louis Langrée’s dispassionate overview of the work, which allowed the orchestra and singers to merge in and out of each other. The interludes were especially telling, almost explanatory, and the sound, so inimitably French, completed Debussy’s floating-world impression of darkness and desire.
Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande is an otherworldy symbolist dream. Louis Langrée, Natalie Dessay, Laurent Naouri, Simon Keenlyside and the Orchestre de Paris at the Barbican, London, created the opera as perhaps it should be, an extended symphonic reverie with voices. Four hours, short break: no mercy to the faint of heart.
Although Pelléas et Mélisande is dramatic enough for an opera, concert performances throw emphasis on the orchestral structure. The dense forest in Act One isn’t physical. Seductive strings, but chilling winds, in every sense. It’s a psychological jungle into which Golaud has strayed. Mélisande’s first words are a warning. “Ne me touchez pas” Natalie Dessay’s Mélisande is much more than a pale mirror for Golaud’s fantasies. The deliberate sharpness in Dessay’s singing is deeply disturbing because it barely suppresses the innate sensuality that lies beneath. Later, the tenderness in Dessay’s portrayal will reveal itself, but she establishes the essence of the mystery straight away. Whoever Mélisande might be, she’s an elemental spirit, and not benign.
Dessay’s singing isn’t flashy but emotionally true. It’s significant that she spends time with Pelléas by the deep pond whose waters can restore sight to the blind. Dessay’s voice becomes flirtatious, as if she instinctively scents Pelléas as prey. When the pair enter the underground grotto, it could be a reprise of Golaud lost in the forest, but this time Mélisande has changed, as the lightness entering Dessay’s voice indicates. The part doesn’t call for extreme range, but is expressed by fine nuance. In the tower room, Pelléas and Mélisande don’t need to talk, or even close their eyes. There’s more to communication than words, or kisses for that matter. Golaud dismissdes the pair as “children” but children sometimes know things beyond the ken of self-conscious, literal adults. Thus no coy sentimenatlity in Dessay’s portrayal, which is direct and lucidly expressed. Although there are so many mysteries in Mélisande’s past, she exists on a completely different plane to ordinary mortals, and is utterly true to herself.
Laurent Naouri’s Golaud is equally well thought through. Sometimes Golaud’s depicted as a brute, to emphasize the contrast between the brothers, but in many ways, they are halves of the same personality. Naouri is forceful, but refined, a caring, decent man, captured by forces way beyond his control. When Naouri sings La nuit sera très moire et très froide, his voice opens outwards, creating a sheen of sensitivity. This is the “Pelléas” aspect of Golaud’s personality. Perhaps he was once like his younger brother though, as Mélisande notes, he’s turned grey before his time. It’s the Allemonde effect, established long before we even reach the palace. Naouri’s Golaud develops as the opera develops, which is perceptive. In the Act III underground scene, the darkness in Naouri’s voice rises, barely stifled. If Yniold wasn’t with his father outside the tower, who knows how Golaud might have reacted? In Act V, Naouri expresses the pent-up hysteria in Golaud’s anguish. He’s torn apart by guilt. As Mélisande talks of death, his cry Toi, toi, et moi, moi aussi, après toi! comes from a dark place too horrible to contemplate.
Dessay and Naouri are stalwarts of the French tradition, but Simon Keenlyside (photo Uwe Arens) fits in extremely well, for he has taken the role of Pelléas so many times, it’s almost his trademark. His diction’s perfect, capturing the Gallic twists like a native speaker. Nice, clean and suitably charming. If this performance was less complex than his creation of the part in Berlin five years ago, that’s because his Berlin performance was exceptional, not at all easy to match.
In live performance a singer should be judged in context, not pinned down like a lab specirmen. In the context of this performance, Keenlyside concentrated on the three-way relationship between Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud, which is much more central to the psychological truth in the opera than a straightforward tale of thwarted love. For this reason, I appreciated Keenlyside’s performance a great deal because he let the opera take precedence over the role. If Pelléas et Mélisande is a psychodrama of the subconcious, as Maetrelinck intuirted, the emphasis is on Mélisande and the effect she has on those around her. Pelléas and Golaud are after all brothers and close, though they have different fathers. Too much emphasis on Pelléas distorts the balance. Incidentally, Keenlyside was wearing an elbow brace and careful not to move his arm. He has a long history of “battle injuries” both on stage and off. I hope he’ll mend soon.
Alain Vernhes was an excellent, sympathetic Arkel. His voice is firm enough to sound youthful and virile, which is true to the opera, since Arkel has many important things to say. Depicting him as a crumbling Titurel is a misreading of the role. Marie-Nicole Lemieux was a feisty, energetic Geneviève, not completely cowed by the anomie that is Allemonde. Golaud and Pelléas may get their strength from her. Khatouna Gadelia sang Yniold and Nahuel di Pierro sang the Shepherd and the Doctor. There werre occasional slips even in the main parts, but that’s what live performance is. It’s spontaneous, things don’t operate like clockwork. Stay at home if you demand machine-like delivery. That’s not what music is, anyway. Overall, this was very high calibre singing indeed, and a joy to the ears.
But it was the orchestra that really made this Pelléas et Mélisande come alive. for Debussy isn’t writing an opera so much as a symphonic reverie with voices. Louis Langrée and the Orchestre de Paris make a superb case for concert performance. Debussy didn’t write those extensive interludes for nothing. Above all, he was an orchestralist for whom abstract music could be even more expressive than words. The vocal texts undulate within a relatively simple range, much like spoken language, but the orchestra sings, rumbles, screams, comments and dreams. The Orchestre de Paris is wonderfully lucid, as direct as Mélisande herself, asnd as capable of mystery. Indeed, because Langrée gets such clarity, the psychological ambiguities are thrown into even higher focus.
Debussy’s writing is strikingly lucid. Although music without text is abstract, in many ways Pelléas et Mélisande is an abstract opera dealing with concepts words cannot express. Throughout this opera contrasting images, extremes of light and darkness, debilitating heat and frigidity, oppressive entrapment and escape. Starving peasants encroach on the palace. which is cut off from the outside world by encircling forests. Allemond (“all the world”) is imploding on itself. Some scenes are almost impossible to stage literally, such as when Mélisande lets down her golden hair, presumably so long and so strong that Pelléas can climb up on her tresses and tie strands to trees without doing damage. The symbolism of hair and the obvious phallic reference that is the tower indicate what may be at the heart of this opera, but there are many other important threads, such as truth and dishonesty (“I only lie to my husband” says Mélisande). You could kill this opera by literal staging, though a well made film might catch its essence. Langrée and the Orchestre de Paris played with such elegance and poise that they illustrate, through their playing, the fundamerntal psychic imbalance that is at the heart of this highly conceptual drama.
I felt so emotionally engaged that I was shattered. But what do I know? At the end, as soon as Langrée let his hand drop, there was a loud and very deliberate boo from someone in the audience. Perhaps the kind of clever clot who thinks it shows how superior he was. Or the kind of person who gets kicks from spoiling things for everyone else. Booers are boors, make no mistake.
For a moment, the orchestra looked shocked but soon regained their aplomb. It’s London that should be ashamed, not Paris. Those who stayed for the applause had an extra bonus. April 19th is Natalie Dessay’s birthday and the band struck up “Happy Birthday”. Those who could sing sang along, too, including a large French family sitting near me. She beamed, and she deserved it.
At the Barbican Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande had a single concert performance, presented in association with the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The last time I saw this opera was at the Royal Opera in a production so hateful that it virtually turned me against the work itself. This Barbican event was the perfect remedy for that, and I imagine that anyone present will regard it as one of the operatic experiences of a lifetime.
With the superb Orchestre de Paris onstage, one could hear innumerable moving details, but more important was the sheer power and passion of the playing, as, too, of all the performers; Louis Langrée, the conductor, is no doubt largely responsible for the devastating success of the occasion. Without indulging in late-Karajan lushness, he nonetheless banished any thoughts of half-colours, velleities and the other terms that are routinely used to characterise this masterpiece. He was working with a perfect cast, too.
Natalie Dessay, an apparently faultless artist, delivered Mélisande’s often puzzling lines with exactly the right kind of evasiveness, while retaining a ravishing sound throughout. Simon Keenlyside as Pelléas, in the role he was born, above all others, to sing, gave a reading of nearly unbearable intensity, nobility and warmth, turning a character who often comes across as insipid into one of opera’s most fascinating figures, and using a voice which at full throttle made an immense impact. All horrible memories of his involvement in that ghastly Royal Opera massacre were banished.
And Laurent Naouri’s Golaud made the whole thing even more agonising because his Golaud was so intent on doing the right thing and so lost about what that might be. Alain Vernhes sang Arkel’s music more beautifully than anyone I have ever heard, leaving one feeling that, however tiresomely sententious what this character says may be, Debussy does give him every chance.
An elusive work, a definitive account — that is a paradox, nearly, but one that this unforgettable occasion compels me to produce.