Pelléas et Mélisande at the Albert Hall

The Times, by Geoff Brown, 16 July 2012

Prom 3: Pelleas et Melisande Orchestre Revolutionnaire/Gardiner Royal Albert Hall ****

What a difference a day makes. Saturday’s Prom of My Fair Lady filled the Albert Hall with brassy Hollywood orchestrations and singers sufficiently amplified to be heard on the Moon. On Sunday, all that was swept aside by Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera of whispered subtleties and little action, where Pelléas remarks at one point: “You can almost hear the water sleeping.”

Indeed we could, coupled with the more tangible magic sounds of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s period instrument band. The tuba’s cavernous rasp, the resinous edge of gut-stringed violins, a cymbal’s ghostly shiver: Debussy’s pellucid scoring, so deftly textured, emerged in new glory with Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. We could almost hear Mélisande singing, too. A veteran of Gardiner’s Pelléas performances at the Paris Opéra Comique in 2010, Karen Vourc’h kept most of her power deliberately in reserve, the voice beautifully pale and delicate: perfect for Mélisande’s character, though risky in the Albert Hall. Everyone else rang forth clearly. Sir John Tomlinson powerfully delivered the ancient king’s observations in a voice suitably showing some wear and tear. Phillip Addis’s Pelléas, just as suitably, was much more pristine, and full of young love, if not that much individuality.

Best of the lot was another Opéra Comique veteran Laurent Naouri, as Golaud, the love-triangle pivot who scoops up the mysterious Mélisande, makes her his wife in a drear castle, then wonders why her attention wanders. Peeved anguish came easily into Naouri’s eloquent bass-baritone. He also scored well in this concert version’s minimalist staging, whether standing stock imprisoned in thought or draped over a reclining seat like a patient in heavy psychoanalysis. Usually he never glanced at his fellow singers: a bad move in most operas, but in Debussy and Maeterlinck’s drama of enigmas and symbols it pertinently suggested that the entire drama took place inside Golaud’s head.

Gardiner’s conducting was persuasive and wise, reaching fortissimo drama in the orchestral interludes but smartly sinking back with the voices into the plaintive, the suggestive and tinkling. The Albert Hall might be vast and pompous, but the opera’s fragile spell triumphantly survived.