Salonen’s Pelléas et Mélisande an Extraordinary Performance and Musical Triumph

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande: Soloists, Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 27.11.2014 (MB)

Mélisande – Sandrine Piau
Pelléas – Stéphane Degout
Golaud – Laurent Naouri
Geneviève – Dame Felicity Palmer
Physician – David Wilson-Johnson
Arkel – Jérôme Varnier
Yniold – Chloé Briot
Shepherd – Greg Skidmore
Narrator – Sara Kestelman
David Edwards (director)


This was an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary work, one which has rarely been given its due in London and which, bafflingly, our opera houses still shy away from staging. I have only seen Pelléas et Mélisande ‘live’ once before, in a performance at Covent Garden superlatively conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. The best that one could say about the accompanying staging was that the excellence of the performances still shone through. Here, we had a minimal staging from David Edwards, excellently lit (so important in Debussy, both physically and metaphysically!), which let the opera speak for itself, but which, having the characters seated in the Choir watching, walking down slowly to the stage, offered something of a frame to the action. The narration, though well delivered, seemed entirely superfluous and would have been better off cut.

 That really is my one and only cavil. Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Philharmonia in a performance as fine as anything I have heard from him and/or the orchestra. Like Debussy’s score itself, it drew one in to listen, rejecting ‘operatic’ gesture for symbolist drama. (Is that, perhaps why we find it so difficult to stage the work, finding ourselves so remote from æsthetic tenets from which it is far from readily sundered?) Debussy’s words from his 1902 ‘Pourquoi j’ai écrit Pelléas,’ might almost have been written as a review of what we heard:  ‘The drama of Pelléas, which, in spite of its dream-like atmosphere, contains far more humanity than so-called “real-life documents”, seemed to suit my intentions admirably. In it there is an evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and into the décor orchestral.’ And so, not only was the performance, aurally still more than visually, ‘lit from behind’, as Debussy so memorably claimed of Parsifal, but it seemed to emerge from Materlinck, or perhaps even from words and a simple yet deep story that somehow had always been there.

 That emergence was the musical story offered by Salonen and the orchestra. There is of course no one ‘right way’ to perform Pelléas. But the refusal to play to the gallery, in conjunction with a refusal to highlight any one particular strand or influence and a near-incredible sensitivity to the subtlest of changes, or indeed continuities, in pitch, timbre, and any other parameter you might care to mention made for an absorbing experience. Line was maintained without realising: it was simply ‘there’. The drenching of the score in Tristan and, perhaps still more, Parsifal had, as with Puccini or Elgar (in some senses, at least, closer spirits than one might suspect), no need to be hammered home. Pierre Boulez was accused in 1969 of having ‘Wagnerised’ Debussy at Covent Garden. (What I should have given to hear that!) He quite rightly responded that there was no need, since Debussy’s music was already ‘Wagnerised’. Although no one now would doubt that, it is interesting to reflect that many, especially from a French nationalistic standpoint, did so at the time. It is also a decidedly individual variety of Wagnerism, so close to Wagner and yet so utterly distant from Beethoven. Here, in 2014, the melos, the post-Amfortas pain, the motivic cohesion and propulsion, the turns of orchestral phrase: all reminded us where we had come from, without insisting that we were still there. Climaxes, as in Wagner, though not as in his lesser successors, were sparing and carefully marshalled – but how they registered when they came!

 Such was, of course, very much the due also of the soloists. No climax registered more overwhelmingly than in the fourth act, thanks both to the orchestra and to the towering portrayal of Pelléas by Stéphane Degout, every inch the equal (at least!) of Simon Keenlyside in 2007. This Pelléas found himself, Tristan-like, in death; his was a frank yet still subtle sexual awakening perhaps, given its pace, more powerful still. Degout’s way with the French text was second to none; its alchemic union with Debussy’s music was not the least of the wonders we heard. ‘Musical’ and ‘dramatic’ values were utterly as one, a hallmark of the performance as a whole. Sandrine Piau’s pure-voiced Mélisande had her own tale to tell, or perhaps not to tell; one was more enchanted than infuriated, but the circularity that incites, and not always positively, was tangible throughout. There was no need for Piau to raise her voice, no need to play the vulgar game of so much actually-existing ‘opera’. Indeed, her ‘early music’ experience was put to spellbinding use, for, whether it be actual influence or no, there is also affinity in Debussy’s work with the earliest of opera. The ghosts – or prophecy – of the stile rappresentativo made their presence felt, without being forced upon us.

 So, naturally, did the ghost of Mussorgsky. One heard it in the bells of the fifth act, but also in the alluring, yet slightly distancing delivery of so many vocal lines. Laurent Naouri’s Golaud was not always vocally ‘beautiful’, but why should he have been? There was something far more valuable here, dramatic truth: again, not in the sense of vulgar display, but in the emergence of a tortured soul from Maeterlinck, the vocal line, and the décor orchestral. The modern cliché of ‘feeling his pain’ was in a better sense entirely justified. Jérome Varnier hinted at a more interesting Arkel than one often feels, managing adroitly the difficult balancing act between young voice and old role. His psychological insights led nowhere, it seemed, and yet one knew at some level their truth. I sensed grave responsibility, even if its nature and grounding remained unspoken. Felicity Palmer’s Geneviève showed that artist’s typically acute response to text as words and music, whilst Chloé Briot offered a perky and, in the best sense, disconcerting Yniold.

 Riddles were posed, then, yet never answered. The ambiguity that lies at the heart of so much of Debussy’s music, whatever ‘artistic’ label we seek to pin upon it, won out. For this was a musical triumph through and through, reminding us of what opera might be, yet sadly, so rarely is. Fauré was reported by Princess Edmond de Polignac as having remarked after the premiere, ‘If that be music, then I have never understood what music was.’ Quite.

Mark Berry

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