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2011-04-19, Barbican Hall, Pelléas et Mélisande

Pelléas et Mélisande

Concert performance

p&m-barbican-2011 credit Sonja Horsman for the Observer

Composer : Claude Debussy
Librettist : A slight alteration of Maeterlinck’s tragedy
Venue and Dates : Barbican Hall, London
19 April 2011 at 18:30
Conductor : Louis Langrée
Performers :

Mélisande : Natalie Dessay
Pelléas : Simon Keenlyside
Geneviève : Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Golaud : Laurent Naouri
Arkel : Alain Vernhes
Yniold : Khatouna Gadelia
Doctor : Nahuel Di Pierro
Orchestre de Paris

Notes :

Barbican website

The astonishingly richly-scored Pelléas at Mélisande was the only opera Debussy wrote. It brought the 19th century to a close by looking firmly, ambitiously – and ultimately influentially – towards the 20th century. A beautiful, haunting sound world of darkness and light, and between them dreamy sweeps of impressionistic colour, the score is a gift for a conductor sensitive to its depth and charm.

Louis Langrée and the Orchestre de Paris are musicians steeped in the French world of Debussy’s music. The lead roles are taken by two of the most thrillingly engaging singers on today’s stage, both renowned for their ability to embody characters: Natalie Dessay as Mélisande and Simon Keenlyside as Pelléas.


Barry Millington, The Evening Standard, 20 April 2011

“Vast and beautiful, full of blue shadows” is how Maeterlinck describes the grotto in which Pélleas and Mélisande hunt for her lost wedding ring in Act 2 of Debussy’s opera.

And it’s a description that might equally apply to the work itself, its sublime expanses characterised by nebulous shapes and crepuscular foreboding.

A concert performance on a brightly lit stage inevitably compromises a good deal of its richly symbolic atmosphere. And yet, as Louis Langrée reminded us, conducting the Orchestre de Paris with Boulezian clarity and precision, there is plenty of orchestral detail to be relished: brushed cymbals suggesting the gentle crashing of waves, rippling harps the moonlight flooding into the grotto.

The onstage orchestra enhanced the immediacy of the drama too at such moments as the jealous Golaud’s spying on the couple in Act 3 and his abusive behaviour towards Mélisande in Act 4.

Laurent Naouri’s superb Golaud captured the character’s pain and anger so poignantly that one could not but empathise with his suffering. Simon Keenlyside similarly invested Pélleas with a vivid identity: his declaration of love for Mélisande in Act 4 was electrifying. The roles of Arkel and Geneviève were admirably taken by Alain Vernhes and Marie-Nicole Lemieux.

Which leaves the problematic Mélisande of the highly regarded Natalie Dessay. She alone buried her head in the score – a monosyllabic “Oui!” as she hastened onto the stage was one of the few lines delivered from memory. The result was unengaging in the extreme, but at the same time too studied. Dessay may perhaps have been trying to suggest Mélisande’s almost psychotic introversion but in the process she sacrificed her affecting, childlike simplicity.

Igor Toronyi-Lalic, The Arts Desk, 20 April 2011

Ne me touchez pas! Ne me touchez pas!” Mélisande’s jittery first words could be the motto for the whole of Pelléas et Mélisande. How to touch. What to touch. When to and when not to touch. More specifically, how to mark without bruising. These are the subjects and challenges thrown up by Debussy’s delicate piece of operatic symbolism. Ones that all the artists in last night’s concert performance at the Barbican Hall tackled with incredible levels of musicality.

There wasn’t just an extraordinary sensitivity to the delicacies of this miraculous score. There was an honouring of the essential underlying principle of Debussy’s work. Which is the idea that, if you want something said, don’t say it. This is why the opera is so devoid of classically significant events yet so full of throwaway vignettes. The music and narrative are as focused on revealing the dramatic potential of omission as statement.

Natalie Dessay seems to know this well. Which is why her Mélisande last night was so extraordinary. She never indulged her words or her presence. But neither did she leave any timbral stone unturned. Every “Je suis heureuse“, “Je suis triste“, “Ou?” and “Oui” was both rich in colouristic meaning and delivered (seemingly) effortlessly. Less was more in her manner too. Mélisande’s rawness was played not through any banshee-like wildness but through the most intensely absorbing stillness one could imagine.

Some saw dramatic fault in this; Dessay was too wedded to her score, they insisted. I found it mesmerising. Her immobility, her blank stare, her fixed terror, seemed a perfect reflection of the consequences of the abuse that her poor Mélisande undergoes and has no doubt undergone before we find her lost in the forests.

Simon Keenlyside, playing Pelléas in a thrillingly boyish way, shows Mélisande a way out, a way to live and flourish, through an embrace of play and sensual touch. Mélisande’s voice, learning new intimate tricks, suggests a reversal of fortunes is in the offing. But her husband Golaud’s bruisingly abusing hands, impeccably sung and acted by Laurent Naouri, refuses to let her go. Keenlyside’s Pelléas was exquisite. No other singer of his age could so convincingly reconfigure themselves to the impulsive swings of a boy.

All the smaller roles had their attractions, from Khatouna Gadelia’s fresh Yniold to Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s anxious Genevieve. Young Nahuel di Pierro’s bass contribution as the Doctor was memorable. Alain Vernhes’s Arkel, though appropriatly forlorn, was the only disappointment in his slightly lame delivery of the heartbreaking final lines. But mostly everyone dealt with their many emotional and musical delicacies with great skill.

They were no doubt taking their cue from conductor Louis Langrée and the Orchestre de Paris, who were creating a great canvas of translucent and atmospheric sound from the periodically coagulating smudges and shadows. How? By restlessly skimming the surface and never bedding down. All of which leads to one very strange conclusion. Of all the many baffling things about this eternally baffling work, the most baffling is the idea that the more superficial the performance, the more profound the results will be.

Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 20.4.2011

A stupendous concert performance which brought the music blazingly to life. Rating: * * * * *

This stupendous concert performance offered a glorious opportunity to savour the sheer sensual loveliness of Debussy’s matchless score, undistracted by a producer’s clunking quest for the plot’s elusive significance or visual imagery, which can never quite match one’s own inner realisation of the dank, famine-stricken kingdom of Allemonde.

But it did more than that. Without scenery, costume or concept, the drama in the music was brought blazingly alive, too.

We don’t hear much of Natalie Dessay in London, but her Mélisande was a vivid reminder of her unique histrionic genius. Eyes cast down, the faintest of smiles on her unreadable face, she embodied the girl’s passive-aggressive pathology in singing of deceptive simplicity and charm.

“Je ne suis pas heureuse,” she mutters blankly after her husband has beaten up. But what would make her happy?

The sucker was Simon Keenlyside’s Pelléas, a boy who believes in love, as boys do, and trusts what a girl says. When he played this role four years ago in a vile production at Covent Garden, I thought he attacked the subtleties of the vocal line with too much force. Here (nursing a broken arm), he rediscovered its sweetness and gentleness. One freak blip aside, he sang with flawless grace and sensitivity.

Equally impressive was Laurent Naouri (Monsieur Dessay off-stage), who selflessly made Golaud a dour, gruff old bore, and not one for whom one could feel much immediate sympathy. Yet the pain in his Act 4 outburst was agonising – the spectacle of a decent, unimaginative man, born to be a health and safety inspector, driven to the edge of madness and violence.

Alain Vernhes was a noble and sonorous Arkel, Marie-Nicole Lemieux brought out all the haunting melancholy in Geneviève’s reading of Golaud’s letter, and both Khatouna Gadelia’s Yniold and Nahuel di Pierro’s Doctor were perfectly judged. It is hard to imagine this opera better cast.

The conducting will be more controversial. Louis Langrée took what one might call the Karajan view of the score, moulding the Orchestre de Paris into a homogeneous whole, rather than exposing its nervous edge, in the style of Rattle or Gardiner.

But the interpretation was one of total integrity, magnificently executed and overwhelmingly beautiful – the long, dying fall of the opera’s conclusion seemed to stretch past the final note into eternity, holding the audience in rapt silence.

Sebastian Petit, Opera Britannia,21.4.2011

4,5 stars

Pelléas et Mélisande sits alone in the operatic canon. Although one might hear echoes of the work in the operas of Janácek and some of Schoenberg’s more lush early works it is hard to determine a thread leading forwards in French opera and even harder to locate the path to the work’s genesis. Many commentators have placed the work as Debussy’s reaction against the massive symphonic operas of Wagner where the words can be seen as secondary to the power and force of the music. However, reading Debussy’s own words it can be seen as much as a refuting of the school of “realistic” opera typified in France by works such as Charpentier’s Louise : “This play about Pelléas which, despite its dream-like atmosphere, nevertheless contains a great deal more humanity than the so-called “documentaries from life” appeared to me to be admirably suited to what I wanted to do. It has within it an evocative language, and the spirit of that language could be continued in the music and the orchestral scenery”This concert performance of the work at the Barbican followed performances at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and many of the cast have performed the work together in productions around the world. Recently, Pelléas has taken on the qualities of a red rag to a bull for directors, resulting in some hideously untruthful, self-serving or wrong-headed productions. I can still barely suppress a shudder when recalling the vile production at Covent Garden when a superlative cast and conductor were scotched by a ludicrous production concept which dressed the male characters in laughable padded starfish costumes. So, while I do not subscribe to the view that it can ever be better to see opera in concert, it did come as a slight relief to be able to concentrate wholly on the miraculous fusion of Maeterlinck’s words and Debussy’s music. And speaking of the words – what a crucial difference it makes to have a predominantly French cast. The naturalness of the conversational style that makes up so much of the opera acquires the perfect immediacy with singers who speak the language by birthright rather than learning. Not that anyone was likely to have any complaints about Simon Keenlyside’s way with French – by now he must almost be an honorary Frenchman!

No attempt was made to stage the work and this was clearly the right decision. In the pale wood surroundings of the Barbican Hall it was better to let the sound world of the music transport one to Debussy’s gloomy Allemonde. Characters entered when they would have entered in the opera and while this did lead to a couple of slightly intrusive exits it felt an appropriate convention.

Louis Langrée’s interpretation of the score was firmly geared to looking forward into the 20th century rather than harking back to the previous generation of French opera composers. There were frequent pre-echoes of Schoenberg’s Guerrelieder and Janácek’s orchestral colouring. The orchestra played superbly for him with many of the climaxes achieving shattering force while never betraying Debussy’s intentions for the sake of mere effect. Debussy’s score offers frequent opportunities for instrumental soloists within the orchestra and the players seized these eagerly with some particularly fine moments from the woodwinds and the cello and bass desks. I should note that very occasionally the positioning of the orchestra on an open platform as opposed to a low pit led to balance issues with the singers. However this is always a hazard of platform performances of opera especially when the opera does not lend itself to huge heroic voice-types.

It would be hard to imagine a better cast today and one can only hope that the concert performances presage a recording. The finest performance of the evening came from Laurent Naouri as Golaud. From his entrance in the forest as a bluff huntsman finding Mélisande instead of the pursued stag through to the final scene, when he has become a husk of a man screaming at his dying wife for justification of his fratricide, Naouri completely inhabits the role. His powerful, dark baritone is used with a Lieder singer’s attention to the detail of music and text to an extent that singer and character are indistinguishable. It is hard, when judging such a complete performance, to pick out individual moments but the final scene, when Naouri floated a breathtaking mezza voce on “Est-ce que ce n’est pas à faire pleurer les pierres” which conveyed the agonising heartbreak of a man floundering in the dark of a situation which he finds himself utterly unable to deal with, will haunt me. The other moment engraved on my memory was the shattering scene when Golaud forces his son to spy on Pelléas and Mélisande in the tower. I thought it was unlikely that any performance would equal the terrifying violence of John Tomlinson in Graham Vick’s Glyndebourne production but Naouri and Khatouna Gadelia as Yniold, abetted by Langrée and the orchestra’s incandescent accompaniment, managed it by vocal means alone. A truly breathtaking and thrilling portrayal.

Simon Keenlyside, despite having one arm in a sling and about to take on one of Verdi’s heaviest baritone roles at Covent Garden, remains a pretty near ideal Pelléas. He heroically encompasses the testing tessitura of the role which pitches the singer mid-way between conventional tenor and baritone ranges. Although the role is often allotted to a tenor I have always preferred a baritone in the role as it gives a more manly cast to the role that can easily seem unassertive and driven by the other characters’ actions. Keenlyside is the latest of a distinguished line of baryton-martin exponents including Thomas Allen and Richard Stilwell. His virile tone and ringing high notes give an edge and excitement that the role often lacks.Natalie Dessay always vividly stamps her own personality onto the roles she undertakes and Mélisande is no exception. Again, in the wrong hands, this role can appear to be almost characterless – a still point around which the other characters orbit, catastrophically affecting them without actually doing anything. This is certainly not the way Dessay conceives the character and she has many moments which evoke a disturbing knowingness and calculation. Yet Dessay retains our sympathies despite this unusual take on the role. I am eager now to see her perform the role in the theatre (providing it is not in the current Royal Opera production!) Her voice occasionally lost audibility and I wondered if she was suffering with an unannounced indisposition.

Alain Vernhes, off duty from Werther rehearsals at Covent Garden made a compelling and beautifully sung Arkel. His scene with Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s eloquent Geneviève was a masterpiece of inflection conveying the deep feelings behind the apparently inconsequential words.

I usually prefer a boy soprano in the small but crucial role of Yniold but Khatouna Gadelia’s sweet toned soprano was pretty much ideal and had the advantage of effortlessly surmounting the thick orchestration in the aforementioned s tower scene. I notice Gadelia is slated to play another French “boy” part at Glyndebourne when she debuts in the title role of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges.

Rounding off the cast was Nahuel di Pierro playing the doctor and shepherd. Di Pierro has a very handsome presence and an immensely promising lyric bass voice and he made the most of the doctor’s beautiful lines in the final scene. I look forward to hearing him again soon in a larger role.

The evening closed with the orchestra playing a heartfelt “Joyeux anniversaire” to Dessay as Naouri (her husband in real life as well) presented her with a huge bouquet. A wonderful evening.

Christopher Gunning, Seen and Heard international, 21.4.2011

Despite being one of Debussy’s most important works, and it representing a landmark in the history of opera, stagings of Pelléas are not exactly two-a-penny, so a packed Barbican Hall was eager for this concert performance. And what a feast it turned out to be.

So much has been written about Debussy’s unique musical language that it’s superfluous to add more here, other than to say that this is an astonishingly beautiful and sometimes extremely dramatic work, which never ceases to amaze in its consistent invention. Although for the singers it is an almost continuous recitative, it is in its way highly melodic and Debussy’s harmony is constantly gorgeous without ever lapsing into overt sentimentality. In fact his sense of theatre is frequently spellbinding, and this is all the more amazing because he is dealing with the very simplest of tales. The plot: prince falls in love with the wife of his half-brother, who murders him. Yes, it’s adultery and its consequences, and it is a story re-enacted day in, day out, in every corner of the world. Perhaps it was partly the very universality of the story which appealed to Debussy. More particularly, it offered scope for Debussy to express essential and strong human emotions; love, jealousy, rage, and finally regret. Furthermore, he could paint impressionistic scenes – the action takes place in the presence of water, in gardens, and in woodland. Add some shadows in the moonlight, and you have all the ingredients for a Debussyesque tone painting.

And so to tonight’s performance, and to state the obvious, this was always going to be very French; just look at the names of the cast, orchestra and conductor, with Simon Keenlyside’s the only non-French name! It is not so very long ago that we would expect woodwind solos from a French orchestra to be characterised by a huge amount of vibrato – something we in the UK found particularly annoying or even downright funny. All that is different now; even the flautists tonight played it relatively straight. Nevertheless the Orchestre de Paris makes a quite different sound to a British, German, or American orchestra, the most obvious difference being that the reed instruments sound more reedy, but there are differences in the approaches of the string and brass departments too, albeit more subtle. Anyway, the point is that French orchestras undoubtedly suit French music particularly well, and this was obvious from the very first bars of Pelléas tonight. There were immediately some lapses in ensemble playing, but it didn’t matter one tiny little bit. The expression was all there, with everything scrupulously idiomatic. In fact the orchestra sounded marvellous from top to toe, with delightfully warm and atmospheric playing in the first three acts, rising to more dramatic stuff in Acts Four and Five. Here they supplied considerable verve and power, yet not once did they overwhelm the singers. Credit for this must be given to Debussy’s kaleidoscopic orchestration, and to Louis Langrée, who deserves a medal for handling a notoriously difficult score with the kind of complete musicality one finds all too rarely. Think about it – three hours of music with hardly more than a few consecutive bars in the same tempo. Every nuance seemed to be captured. It was interesting to compare his approach with the superb performances of Boulez a few years ago; Boulez was rather dream-like through Acts One to Three, but with plenty of drama when needed in Four and Five, whereas with Langrée we had a generally more flexible and restless approach, each phrase being given its own space and time.

In Natalie Dessay as Mélisande, Simon Keenlyside as Pélleas and Laurent Naouri as Golaud, we had a perfect trio of singers in the lead roles, and all performed astonishingly. Dessay and Keenlyside, despite being placed on opposite sides of the conductor, were absolutely in love, and Naouri made the most of Golaud’s desperation, especially when he loses control, murdering Pelléas and then showering Mélisande with abuse. Dessay approached her role with touching simplicity when needed – often understated yet affectingly feminine and sincere. Keenlyside, meanwhile, was impish and impulsive, qualities so appealing to Mélisande’s desire for escape and freedom. The smaller parts were no less well done; Alain Vernhes as the sage Arkel was perfectly judged and suitably weighty when required, and although played by a woman, in Khatouna Gadelia we had a credibly worried and ultimately terrified little boy, Yniold.

Flowers, then, for the artists, and just to complete a wonderful evening the orchestra spontaneously burst into “Happy Birthday to You.” The lucky girl was Natalie Dessay, and you could not imagine anyone looking more delighted. Altogether a magical evening.

Tim Ashley, The Guardian, 21.4.2011

5 stars

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.

Mark Valencia, What’s on stage, 21.4.2011

5 stars

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.

Robert Hugill, Planet Hugill blog, 20.4.2011

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.

Fiona Maddocks, The Observer, 24.4.2011

“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

4 stars

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.

Peter Reed, Classicalsource.com

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.

Doundou Tchil,Classical Ikonoclast,20.4.2011

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.

another review and some nice photos on the Intermezzo Blog

Michael Tanner,Arts and culture,May 2011

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.

another review in the operaandme blog

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jane April 26, 2011 at 7:42 pm

This latest commentary by Hilary Finch for the Times is excellent as it is such an accurate account of the performance I saw last Tuesday (ah…this time last week!!) I was also impressed by Simon’s cry of “Je t’aime”. The words were declared just as a naive, unsure young man would utter them. It was a brilliant moment.

diana jones April 22, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Hi Bill. Thanks for the info re Simon’s recordings (or should that be lack of recordings!) It’s so frustrating about Winterreise being put on the back-burner again – that’s the one thing I’ve wanted above all the others to get done. Along with Die Schone Mullerin, it’s my favourite Schubert songcycle and I’m just dying to hear Simon do it(and to see his drawings accompanying it). Will just have to be content with the English CD for now, I suppose. Let’s hope it’s not too long before it actually becomes available. It’s been way too long since we last had anything new from Simon, and wonderful as all of his recordings are, something different would be well appreciated! Diana.

Bill Palik April 22, 2011 at 3:15 am

I have heard nothing re: Simon’s Pelleas in English. Last month in New York he told me he is going to “be more careful” in his recordings from now on – hard to imagine how he could be MORE careful than he has been – and has not done his announced Winterreise, either (was supposed to have the song booklet illustrated by his own line drawings), but says he will get to it “someday.” At least the release this fall of his English language CD is apparently solid – still waiting to find out if he finished off the recording project he “got bored with halfway through” some years ago, or if this CD is recorded de novo.

diana jones April 21, 2011 at 7:48 am

How I wish I could have been there! Can’t wait for the radio broadcast of the Paris performance! Does anyone know anything about the English language version of Pelleas that Simon was supposed to be recording last Spring? Did it happen, and if so when will it be released?

Jane April 20, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Well I was lucky enough to be there and it was indeed a fantastic evening. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole performance. I thought Natalie Dessay was great actually – I liked the way she played Melisande. I love that last comment about Simon and totally agree that no other singer of his age could act like a boy in such a wholly convincing way. He looked so youthful and sang so gloriously and yes when he declared his love for Melisande in Act IV it was heartrending – brilliantly done …. and with an injured arm that the other performers took great care to avoid touching at the end of the evening, so it must be pretty painful. How on earth did he manage to do the performances!?

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