Pelléas et Mélisande [Debussy’s opera at Barbican Hall with Natalie Dessay & Simon Keenlyside]

Pelléas et Mélisande – lyric drama in five acts based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck [concert performance; sung in French with English surtitles]

Mélisande – Natalie Dessay
Pelléas – Simon Keenlyside
Geneviève – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Golaud – Laurent Naouri
Arkel – Alain Vernhes
Yniold – Khatouna Gadelia
Doctor – Nahuel di Pierro

Orchestre de Paris
Louis Langrée

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 19 April, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Natalie DessayOpera directors have tied themselves, and their audiences, up in knots in their approaches to Debussy’s symbolist masterpiece, with some wayward results – so this back-to-basics concert performance proved yet again that the drama is all there is the music. It was given additional fluency by the predominantly French singers and players, and came on the back of two performances given in Paris.

You’d think that it would be hard going for the listener to be on the cusp for three hours between the opera’s shifting expressive allegiances of words and music, without the support of visual aids, but in a performance as focused as this, with the drama reduced to a few gestures and glances, all the components of the opera – the relationships and the elemental importance of water, light and nature – found their virtual reality in the music with consummate ease. It was a performance that embraced the paradoxes that make this shadowy work so powerful, that ungraspable blend of extreme evanescence and extreme tension.

Simon Keenlyside. Photograph: Uwe ArensTwo of the cast – Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri – are fairly fresh from Laurent Pelly’s recent production, and Simon Keenlyside is a seasoned Pelléas. By all accounts, Naouri was a formidable Golaud in the staged performance, and there were many times when his account here would have justified renaming the opera after him. It circles around him, and, of the three main characters, Golaud changes the most. Naouri was superbly sympathetic, far from the brute force of some stagings, capturing Golaud’s subliminal optimism and authority at the start of his half-understood love for Mélisande, and totally eviscerating and tragic as jealousy and rage take over – the scene in which he physically attacks Mélisande was so intense that visual verification would have been otiose. His dark, supple baritone and conflicted presence caught all the flickering nuances of the role in a compelling, indeed revelatory performance, which the capacity audience took to its heart.

Keenlyside’s high baritone, in telling, caressing contrast to Naouri, was singularly appropriate for Pelléas, and his still-youthful presence was a touching reminder of the enclosed, solipsistic nature of artless passion. There was an otherworldly ferocity to his singing in the Act Two scene where he is ’playing’ with Mélisande, and the love scene was perfectly paced. “All the stars are falling”, he sings, and our defences fell with them.

Dessay’s Mélisande was similarly convincing and natural, all-the-better to express the opposition of Mélisande’s passivity, arousal and innocence. Dessay paced herself well, so that the difference between her half-voice, interior singing at the start and her first, full outburst when she literally lets her hair down was shockingly effective. The clarity and simplicity of her singing gave the shadowy allusions of the words terrific resonance.

Alain Vernhes sang the role of Arkel with touching compassion, and strong singing and characterisation from Marie-Nicole Lemieux (also in the Pelly production) made you wish that Geneviève was a bigger role than it is.I loved Louis Langrée’s dispassionate overview of the work, which allowed the orchestra and singers to merge in and out of each other. The interludes were especially telling, almost explanatory, and the sound, so inimitably French, completed Debussy’s floating-world impression of darkness and desire.

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