The Philharmonia Orchestra’s new season of concerts inspired by Paris during the years 1900-1950 could only have begun with Debussy’s operatic masterpiece, Pelléas et Mélisande. Premiered in 1902, it finally turned a generation of French composers away from the influence of Wagner and set them on course for a new musical destiny.
A great advantage of Debussy’s sole opera is also that it does not require a full staging. The clarity of the text (based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s original 1893 play) and the limpid orchestration are enough to hold the audience’s attention without additional action. Director David Edwards and lighting designer Colin Grenfell understood this, employing symbolic movements and transformations of light and dark to complement the music’s shifting textures. The cast sat behind the orchestra, wearing blindfolds until drawn into the drama at the front of the stage. Their gestures were simple and spare, often reacting to or mirroring each other rather than engaging in direct contact. Isolated props at the side of the stage reminded onlookers of their centrality in the drama – Mélisande’s crown, her golden tresses, Golaud’s sword. Only Sarah Kestelman’s entr’acte narrations (synopses of Maeterlinck’s play and extracts from his published preface) felt superfluous.
The cast itself was superb. Indeed, a more perfect combination of singers would be hard to find. Most were native French speakers – an important attribute in French opera – and all sang from memory. Laurent Naouri’s Golaud was outstanding. He didn’t just sing and act the role, he was Golaud, Prince of Allemonde. The scenes in which, wracked by jealousy, he first bullies his son Yniold (sung by a convincingly innocent and boyish Chloé Briot) into spying on Pelléas and Mélisande, and then pulls his wife by the hair were truly horrifying. Mélisande’s vagueness, vulnerability and duplicity (she does eventually confess to lying to her husband) were expertly developed by Sandrine Piau, a late replacement for Monica Bacelli. Stéphane Degout’s lithe, light baritone was the perfect foil for Naour’s dark, grainy timbre. As Pelléas, he comfortably managed the transition from dreamy loner to princely lover. British mezzo soprano Felicity Palmer gave a noticeably fresh account of Geneviève, mother of half-brothers Golaud and Pelléas, combining dignity and fragility with excellent diction. Jérôme Varnier was a young-looking King Arkel (although there is no reason why the role has to be played by a white-bearded patriarch).His rich, dark, bass voice and stately delivery had all the authority and warmth needed to carry off his part successfully.
The score was beautifully played by the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s steady direction. Bold moments of high drama and hard-hitting emotional punches were balanced by subtle delicacy, with the layers of Debussy’s orchestration gently lifted and then re-laid. In their hands it was astonishing to still detect Wagnerian echoes in Debussy’s music, as well as atonal signposts to the future. Both players and conductor had a clear vision of the qualities of light and shadow running through the opera, as well as in the forthcoming music of their City of Light season.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.