sat 18/11/2017

BBC Proms: Pelléas et Mélisande, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Pelléas et Mélisande, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner

BBC Proms: Pelléas et Mélisande, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner

Mystery and wisdom in this intimate performance of Debussy's only opera

Phillip Addis as Pelléas and Karen Vourc’h as Mélisande: a convincing coupleAll images © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

How silly an armchair looks in the Royal Albert Hall - like a rubber duck floating in the Pacific. Yet how right it was for those behind this excellent semi- staged Proms performance of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande to try to recreate a bit of fin-de-siècle intimacy for this most intensely intimate of operas. And how appropriate also for there to be a couch on stage in a work that is, and has always been, a psychoanalyst's dream.

But it wasn't just the furniture that suggested that we were being given entry to an interior world. Everything about the way this symbolist drama played out last night pointed to the possibility that the drama was in fact a Freudian dream being conjured up not by Pelléas or Mélisande but by the third man in this relationship, Prince Golaud. The work opens on Laurent Naouri's Golaud twisted in his chair, his eyes closed, his head in his hands. He is the first person on stage and last off it. 

Naouri was incredible at the extremes of softness and highness

In between nothing really quite happens - though a lot almost happens. The dramatis personae float in and out of hazy, quasi Medieval scenarios not as fully autonomous humans but as semi-independent participants. To leave Maurice Maeterlinck's delicate drama to the oneiric realm, then, makes plenty of sense. There was no attempt to realise the various medieval elements that make up the narrative. Confining the forest, the cave, the castle and well to the imagination allowed the work to achieve a psychological depth and subtlety that few stage productions manage. 

The story certainly made more of an effect on me this time than it did when half of this Proms ensemble - Sir John Eliot Gardiner, his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Philip Addis's Pelléas and Karen Vourc’h's Mélisande - were performing the work together at the Opéra Comique in Stéphane Braunschweig's 2010 production. The differences were instructive. Faced with the shoebox theatre that is the Opéra Comique and a lacklustre production, Gardiner let the music swing and sway wildly at the Paris production. Here, in the Royal Albert Hall, in a castle that the forlorn King Arkel could only dream of, Gardiner cleverly adjusted his speeds and his rubato, forcing the music down a steadier but no less exciting path. With the beat slow and steady, each subtle change of colour could be heard more clearly and could tell in the drama more powerfully. 

Some of the finest moments were to be found in the longer speech-songs, where, to a Sprechstimme-like vocal line, Debussy offers a clever and ever-shifting soundscape behind. This was a form of impressionism mostly of the Cy Twombly and not the Claude Monet kind, full of half-finished minimalist doodlings. Marten Root and Lina Leon's flutes were outstanding in this, as divine at Twombly-ing as they were at Monet-ing, most memorably at the soft close of Act One.

But of the many moments of colouristic wonder, two stick out. The shift from a radiant sunniness at the start of Pelléas and Mélisande's investigation of the beach and cave to a cold moonlit scene at the end was handled by Gardiner with such skill it was easy to forget one was indoors. Soon after, Vourc'h's Mélisande scaled the choir area of the orchestra and sung her tower song with ravishing clarity and beauty, accompanied with tremendous delicacy by Gardiner. The cast was strong. Vourc'h may have lacked the otherworldliness needed to fully make sense of this woman's strange unhappiness (and didn't get to that mysterious state of being that Dessay did at the Barbican recently) but her voice was a delight, particularly her sotto voce. Naouri's Golaud was seriously classy, pitch-perfect in his torment, beautifully French in tone and incredible at the extremes of softness and highness where French composers frequently like their male singers to go.

Addis was a little aimlessly puppyish as Pelléas, though vocally attractive. Dima Bawab sung Yniold's small part with great beauty, as did Elodie Méchai Geneviève. The only weak link was Sir John Tomlinson's Arkel. That unerring consistency that he usually brings to everything he sings deserted him last night. He seemed outfoxed by Debussy's rhythmic patterns and confused by his role (particularly strange as he has sung it before). Even so, there was power in his rendition of his moving final speech. And the orchestral epilogue, one of the most beautiful passages in all opera, retained all its wisdom and mystery in Gardiner's masterful hands.

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