Prom 3: Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (Concert Performance)

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 3: Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (concert performance):soloists, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Royal Albert Hall, London, 15.7.2012. (JPr)

Phillip Addis( baritone) -Pelléas
Karen Vourc’h (soprano) – Mélisande
Laurent Naouri (bass-baritone) – Golaud
Sir John Tomlinson (bass) – Arkel
Elodie Méchain (alto) – Geneviève
Dima Bawab (soprano) – Yniold
Nahuel di Pierro (bass) – Doctor/Shepherd
Monteverdi Choir
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)


Phillip Addis as Pelléas and Karen Vourc’h as Mélisande in Debussy’s Pelléas
et Mélisande at the BBC Proms
Credit BBC/Chris Christodoulou.
Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Claude Debussy’s 1902 Pelléas et Mélisande based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play has avoided any great popular acceptance. The widower Golaud, father of the young Yniold and son of the enfeebled old King Arkel is lost in the woods whilst hunting. He stumbles across a girl sobbing by a pond in which she has lost her golden crown, but Golaud does not find out much more about her except that she was, apparently, severely abused in the past. Golaud is soon married to her but she seems far happier with her husband’s younger half-brother, Pelléas. The relationship between stepbrother and his new wife seems entirely chaste but it eventually drives Golaud to fratricide. There is one particularly physical manifestation of Pelléas and Mélisande’s feelings for each other and that is the opera’s most memorable scene, in which she tosses her long golden tresses from a tower for Pelléas to caress erotically. When Mélisande dies after giving birth to a daughter, the tortured Golaud is left literally holding the baby … but whose child is it?

The work is more strongly influenced by Wagner’s epic music dramas than some commentators would care to admit and Debussy was a passionate Wagnerian who – like many of us – made repeated ‘pilgrimages’ to Bayreuth, whilst remaining – also as many of us – anything but uncritical. Christopher Cook’s programme note had only a passing mention of Wagner but he explained ‘Debussy was composing his opera within a distinctly French tradition. And that meant ‘no’ to the Bayreuth sorcerer, although Debussy came to admire Parsifal more than any other of Wagner’s works and, despite Debussy’s avowed intent, there are echoes of Wagner’s music throughout the opera.’

Indeed there are, and by mentioning ‘sorcerer’ in the same paragraph as Parsifal leads those who know their Wagner to thoughts of the character Klingsor from that opera. Musically, when Golaud denounces Mélisande (Une grande innocence!) in Act IV it is that evil magician’s music from the opening of Parsifal Act II that we hear. Also Debussy was clearly under the spell of Tristan und Isolde too, as the subsequent tenderly intimate encounter between Pelléas and Mélisande reminds the listener strongly of the ‘love duet’ in Act II of that opera.

It is not often entirely clear what Maeterlinck’s symbols represent here and there and thoughts on this are best left to another occasion, but what is without doubt is that Debussy unravels his simple, sombre and downbeat plot much too slowly; occasionally testing the audience’s patience. It was clearly too much for some even though the advertised concert performance was actually a semi-staged one. The Royal Albert Hall was not full to begin with but never have I seen so many people leave an auditorium as a concert continued, beginning straight after Act I! The problem could be that Debussy wants oppressively gloomy and foreboding forests, castle rooms and dungeons, and ominously deep wells. All that was seen was a brightly-lit performance area with a raised well-upholstered chair and a chaise longue. The rest of the action was left to the imagination with some individual dramatic moments but with little genuine interaction between the singers. In June 2010 it seems John Eliot Gardiner conducted some of these singers at the Opéra Comique in Paris (where Pelléas received its première) and perhaps there were some fragments of that original staging still left here, though now in concert dress.

Also there is the problem of the opera being sung in French, yet apparently in the twenty-first century the BBC Proms still cannot find a way to project a translation onto screens around the Royal Albert Hall. If they cannot do this they must start giving the libretto away free-of-charge as fewer people seem willing to spend £4.50 to buy them along with the programme. Then perhaps with the house-lights up a bit more everyone can have a better understanding of what actually they are supposed to be seeing.

The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique under the relaxed baton of Sir John Eliot Gardiner was on great form; their period instruments underpinning the more delicately orchestrated numbers, often to ravishing effect. The mellow quality of the gut strings, the refined brass and limpid woodwind certainly brought more clarity to the music than its impressionistic nature perhaps warranted. Those strings that are often associated with Golaud, Geneviève and Arkel are clearly redolent of entrapment at times. However these eloquent sonorities were often at the expense of forward momentum and real drama – at least in the first three acts – but that maybe more Debussy’s fault than John Eliot Gardiner’s.

The singers had various successes in filling the hall with sound against an occasional surging orchestra. Karen Vourc’h’s Mélisande had a personable and winsome alien mystery about her throughout; she had plenty of power for her Act III mediation about her hair supposedly draped from a castle tower window – though here sung from the back of the platform below the organ. Elsewhere her Act IV ‘Je t’aime aussi’ (I love you, too) to Pelléas – that he barely hears – also went unheard, I suspect, by many in the Royal Albert Hall.

Phillip Addis’s well-focussed baritone made him an attractive and often passionate Pelléas. Laurent Naouri managed Golaud’s inner torment and descent into jealous rage very well with his bass-baritonal attack clearly capable of Klingsor sometime in his career. Dima Bawab was an appealingly boyish Yniold and Elodie Méchain did well in her few moments as Geneviève.

Overpowering everyone because of his vocal and physical presence was Sir John Tomlinson’s compassionate and wise Arkel. He used to sing Golaud and his voice – that is still so full of the gravitas necessary even in small roles like this – was probably even more emotionally engaging in the fully staged version of this opera in which he recently appeared in Barcelona.

Jim Pritchard

For more information about the 2012 BBC Proms season visit