Pelléas et Mélisande (Southbank Centre)

This opening performance in the Philharmonia’s ‘City of Light: Paris 1900-1950’ season presented Debussy’s opera in a concert setting, with the orchestra centre stage and the singers walking down from the choir seats to stand stage front and sing their roles.

A piece rich in melodrama and both orchestral and vocal power, the music unfolded at a leisurely pace (starting at 7pm and finishing at 10.25pm, with a 20 minute interval) but there were moments which were moving, engrossing, and which presented the story with an immediacy which was captivating – much of this was down to the choice of lighting and in the use of cleverly staging (each act was ‘dressed’ in a different way to push the story forward).

Of the cast, Sandrine Piau (a last-minute substitute) was outstanding as Mélisande, her acting of the role as effective as her singing – while Stéphane Degout as Pelléas displayed a vibrancy and power of voice which kept you watching.  No less effective were Laurent Naouri as Golaud (I enjoyed watching him inhabit the role, through curiosity, anger, suspicion and finally grief), Jérome Varnier – a fine bass – as Arkél (the grandfather, so he looked too young, but his voice was perfect), Felicity Palmer as the mother of Golaud and Pelléas, and Chloé Briot as the little boy Yniold.

If I had a quibble it would be with the decision to add a narration which added nothing and which was hesitantly delivered by Sara Kestelman.  I appreciate this was an experiment to try and gain the pauses and silence which usually come naturally in a fully-staged production of this opera, but it didn’t quite come off.

Far better was the decision to have the cast garbed in white masks at the start, which were removed as the piece began.  As a metaphor for blindness, shadows, and secrets this worked very well indeed – this also reminded us of the great Greek tragedies, where the Chorus were generally masked but all-seeing.

In the case of ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ much is hidden, misconstrued, or simply missed.  The King, almost blind, sees only Mélisande’s innocence.  Golaud sees this in her, a frightened bird, but can not bring himself to trust this mysterious bird of paradise, while Pelléas betrays his family and eventually brings tragedy to them all.

An intelligent production, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, with the Philharmonia in good form.  Exhausting and immersive, but very much worthwhile.

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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