Natalie Dessay Mélisande
Simon Keenlyside Pelléas
Marie-Nicole Lemieux Geneviève
Laurent Naouri Golaud
Alain Vernhes Arkel
Khatouna Gadelia Yniold
Nahuel Di Pierro Doctor
My knowledge of French opera is at most rudimentary, and never had the time to tackle Pelléas et Mélisande head on before. Unfortunately due to my bad planning and awful London transport I was too late for the start so let’s pretend that Act One never existed. Also I would not recommend to anyone to be late if you have second row tickets…got a grumpy look from Simon Keenlyside as we sat down!
I had listened to numerous excerpts of the opera and always found the expansive soundworld of Debussy to be interesting and compositionally accomplished but never quite grabbed me like much of Italian opera from the Baroque to the 19th century. So I knew the only way I’d sit down and listen to the whole opera would be a live performance. After seeing the cast I booked my tickets almost a year ahead and the journey started!
From the first bars of the Act Two it was very clear that Langrée and his Parisian forces were totally idiomatic, their soundstage was wide and enveloping the textural detail was there and the string playing was creamy and flowing like the many watery references in the work. A nice touch was how Langrée was almost singing along with the singers reciting (silently) the libretto alongside the performers he was queuing.
What seemed a bit strange was that Dessay, possibly the most famed singing actress of our time, was almost immobile and seemed almost attached to her score. There were glimpses of acting, like in the scene where she drops the ring in the well and her conversation with Pelléas was full of warmth and familiarity which accompanied with Keenlyside’s ardent boyish acting and Dessay’s radiant forward projection it was a marvel. But when the question of Pelléas by Golaud came about Naouri stole the show with vibrant acting that seemed natural and emotionally involved and his singing was as accomplished. I particularly enjoyed how he used the page turning of his score as a way to express the turmoil of his character while questioning Pelléas about Mélisande. He was also wonderfully naturalistic in his interaction with Yniold, being at times tender and at times very harsh and investigative. Khatouna Gadelia is one young soprano to watch out for, she showed a fresh tone, beautiful diction and vibrant dramatic qualities.
In Acts Three and Four Dessay gave us a beautifully sang heroine reaching the end of her life with a tragic but at the same time a breezy resignment. Her declaring I’m not happy to Golaud was emotional and beautifully sang which made her apparent over-reliance on the score all the more annoying as her singing was delicate and powerful as needed for the part of the romantic heroine.
Of course what stroke me in quite a few places was the banality of the libretto, especially some of the metaphors looked even worse in translation e.g. water in a muslin bag comes to mind. Of course Italian libretti are full of silly references and bizarre plotlines but at least they are saved by the melodies within the score, they have key arias that lift the work. With Pelléas et Mélisande there is no such respite, which in part is a credit to Debussy’s boldness and in the other hand it can be suffocating during a live performance.
The very lushness and enveloping nature of the score is not to be underestimated, as I tellingly Tweeted about it, it reminded me of a wall to wall plush carpeted London semi. And that I was more of a floorboards kind of guy (which is totally true by the way). It seems that the me and Claude will not get along too well for sometime but it was a great experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat to soon. But dear patient reader that has nothing to do with the quality of the performance as this was a wonderful cast with the exception maybe of Alain Vernhes who was underpowered against the enveloping forces of the orchestra, that may have to do with the conductor not being too attentive and keeping the playing at lower levels of volume. And a truly excellent and idiomatic orchestra it’s just me and Claude will have to talk over our differences in the near future and maybe some rapport can be built.
And of course it was charming having the orchestra playing Happy Birthday for Natalie Dessay with all of us singing very badly to it. And also odd having a member of the audience four seats away booing rather violently Langrée at the end of the performance, we were all puzzled at his reaction, but hey, clearly Debussy affects people in totally different ways, at least he didn’t fall asleep! I also regret not seeing Lemieux perform in Act One as I can imagine she would have been sensational. I’ll have to wait for her next performance at The Barbican with Joyce Didonato in Ariodante which will have to be one of the highlights of this year!
Here is the link to Fiona Maddocks’s expert review of the same performance: Click!