Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Pelléas et Mélisande @ Barbican, London

19 April 2011

The evening ended with an impromptu rendition of Happy Birthday for Natalie Dessay, but before that we in the audience had been given a ravishing treat of our own by the soprano and all her colleagues.

As was noted in the programme, Pelléas et Mélisande has been subjected to so many psychological readings on stage that it’s easy to forget how simple and simplistic the work is its no Tristan, certainly. Thus, a concert performance was the ideal medium with which to focus attention on the sheer beauty of the music, aided by superb singing, playing and conducting.

The singers drifted on and off stage from scene to scene, as if the whole opera were being played out in a dream. Dessay’s lost waif, wide-eyed and eerily still, set the mood of unease and other-worldliness from her first words, Ne me touchez pas (Do not touch me). Despite being found, marrying, talking, playing, giving birth and dying within in the space of this one opera, Mélisande is an ungraspable, unfathomable character, and Dessays portrayal was utterly entrancing: every colour, timbre and dynamic was found, tested, and stretched, completely effortlessly.

Her exchanges with Simon Keenlyside’s Pelléas were a delight to behold the two lovers are labelled childish by Golaud (of whom more later), and, even though separated by the conductors podium, their childlike delight in a nascent, growing (and illicit) love was vividly portrayed. The only non-native-French speaker among the principals, Keenlyside’s Pelléas seems, if it were possible, to grow more and more convincing and subtle as the years go by. Its easy to forget in the middle of the sensuality of the lovers scenes, that this is the younger, more impetuous, supposedly shyer brother of the bold, domineering Golaud yet Keenlyside, even when he has foresworn the physical athleticism of roles such as Billy Budd, became a nervous youth before our eyes, while still singing like the master he is.

Laurent Naouri as Golaud was by far the most vibrant presence on stage, and with every movement and gesture, allied to his powerful, cutting tone, showed the descent of his character into utter despair as, driven by forces beyond his comprehension or control, he causes the death and destruction of his wife and his half-brother. From the beauty of La nuit sera tres noire et tres froide to the anguish of his final battle of wills with Mélisande, this was an outstanding performance.

Debussy’s other characters seem almost cameos when placed next to the central trio, but to label them so would be to do a disservice to the other excellent performances: Alain Vernhes as the aged and weary king Arkel, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as his daughter (and the father of Pelléas and Golaud) Genevive, Khatouna Gadelia as Golaud’s son Yniold, and Nahuel Di Pierro as the doctor and (very briefly) the shepherd.

The infinitely colourful and subtle playing of the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Louis Langre, was certainly the best performance Ive ever heard of this score. Sinuous, sensuous, firm, mysterious, liquid, responsive everything that Debussy calls for, the orchestra and Langre were. And, at last, the joy of an opera in concert performance where the singers could be heard comfortably above the orchestra!

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk

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