Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande at London’s Barbican

DebussyPélleas et Mélisande: (ConcertPerformance)  Orchestre de Paris, Louis Langrée (conductor), Barbican Hall, London 19.4.2011 (CG) Cast

Natalie Dessay (Mélisande)
Simon Keenlyside (Pelléas)
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Geneviève)
Laurent Naouri (Golaud)
Alain Vernhes (Arkel)
Khatouna Gadelia (Yniold)
Nahuel Di Pierro (Doctor),

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.

Christopher Gunning