Pelléas et Mélisande/Prom 3, Albert Hall - review

Evening Standard by Barry Millington, 16 July 2012

An elusive masterpiece subtly captured as John Eliot Gardiner brings Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande to the Proms for the first time on period instruments

For a good many years now, John Eliot Gardiner has been bringing both the sonorities and the insights of the early music movement to the Romantic repertoire. Brahms, Berlioz and Bizet have all benefited from his judicious reappraisal and last night he brought Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande to the Proms for the first time on period instruments.

The sound-world of this elusive masterpiece, as realised by the Orchestre Révolutionnaireet Romantique, seemed more ravishing than ever. The veiled timbre of gut strings, coupled with liquescent woodwind and subtly muted brass, conjured the mysteriously atmospheric nature of Debussy’s opera to perfection.

It was a slow-burning fuse lit by Gardiner, however; with infinite patience he set the scene in and around Prince Golaud’s castle in Act 1, allowing only a rare surge of emotion in the three acts heard before the interval. Judging by the surprising number of walk-outs, that imposed quite a strain on many in the audience. But semi-stagings, like concert performances, of Pelléas are inherently problematic. In the text (as in the music) we hear of blue shadows, tenebrous caves and sombre castle vaults. In the Albert Hall, lights blazed mercilessly on to the stage, while the audience, in semi-darkness, struggled to descry the printed English translation provided.

But if our imaginations had to work overtime to compensate for the visual disjunction, we were encouraged in our endeavours by a superb cast. Karen Vourc’h brought an ideally breathless, disembodied quality to the role of the fragile Mélisande. The pallid characterisation of Pelléas was skilfully suggested by Phillip Addis, who rose to his outpouring of passion in the love duet.

If John Tomlinson’s richly humane Arkel offered an excellent impression of a quavery, near-blind grandfather, Laurent Naouri was no less splendid as a crotchety, jealous Golaud. Dima Bawab was a suitably boyish Yniold and Elodie Méchain a fine Geneviève.