One of these days, someone is going to get strangled at the Proms. Will it be the one who can’t stop wrestling with a CD booklet, or perhaps the one who turns pages noisily or maybe the one so bored out of her skull that she falls to perusing the adverts for private schools? One thing is for sure — there will be no shortage of volunteers to do the deed.
Only jesting, of course… although these irritations do seem particularly obnoxious when what’s being performed is as finely done as this performance of Debussy’s only opera, the subtle and allusive Pelléas et Mélisande. An especially fine young cast had been assembled for the three principal roles; Laurent Naouri could hardly be bettered as Golaud, his every gesture redolent of his troubled psyche, his presence commanding even when seated and his French diction the epitome of elegance — what a difference it makes to have a native speaker in this role. Karen Vourc’h shares that provenance, and it shows in her idiomatic phrasing and feeling for the line of Debussy’s music; her ‘aria’ at the beginning of Act III, ‘Mes longs cheveux’ rang out with bell-like clarity, no easy feat in this hall. Phillip Addis is a star in the making; this young Canadian baritone already has an impressive C.V. which includes Pelléas with tonight’s conductor and soprano, and he sang with confidence and command in this difficult role, at times recalling the young Thomas Allen — and you can’t get higher praise than that.
Sir John Tomlinson is natural casting for Arkel, even though his French leaves a little to be desired, and Elodie Méchain made a very strong impression as Geneviève with her warm, fluid alto. Even the smaller parts of Yniold and the Shepherd/Doctor were cast from strength, with Nahuel di Pierro striking in the latter and Dima Bawab touching in the former roles. There were moments when Sir John Eliot Gardiner seemed to be indulging the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in a little too much languor for my taste, but the playing was mostly superb, the woodwind after Arkel’s ‘Comme j’avais pitié and the lower strings in Act IV especially mellifluous. Is it a great opera? Not really, but this performance certainly made it sound like one.