Wednesday 20 April 2011

Pelleas et Melisande at the Barbican

Last night, the Barbican gave us Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande given by forces fresh from the Theatre des Champs Elysee in Paris, though unusually the French performances were concert performances as well so on this occasion we weren't missing out. The prime attraction of the performance was to hear a French orchestra, French conductor and primarly Francophone cast. Even in France it seems increasingly rare to hear mainly French singers in French repertoire. Debussy's opera is very much about declamation of text and having Francophone singers is an enormous help. When those singers are of the calibre of Natalie Dessay (Melisande), Laurent Naouri (Golaud) and Alain Vernhes (Arkel), then we are in heaven.

Of the principals the only non-French speaker was Simon Keenlyside, but I'm certainly not complaining. Genevieve was played by Marie-Nicole Lemieux, from Quebec (so Francophone but not French).

In terms of realism, there were things that needed forgiving; after all not all of the principals were anywhere approaching the right age. But what matters is how they suited vocally and here we were seeing a good match. Dessay, though not quite as coloratura as she once was, is still mainly a lyric soprano and has a beautifully fine, focussed tone which conveyed Melisande's youth and beauty. For the first 3 acts she seemed a little too arch, a little too chic, perhaps, but as the drama developed then this mattered less.

Though this was a pure concert performance, all of the singers conveyed much with little. There were entrances and exits, but mainly we relied on the expressiveness of the singers faces. Sometimes this results in a boringly impassive performance, but with 5 fine singing actors in the lead roles then we didn't really need much else. Having overwhelmed with her over the top Orlando (in Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso), Lemieux showed that she can be richly subtle as well, singing Genevieve with dignified melancholy.

Keenlyside was a profoundly moving Pelleas, full of humanity. Yes, he's getting a little old for the role, but who cares when its sung like this. His relations with Dessay's Melisande quivered beautifully with unspoken depths. That is the delight of this opera; the dialogue is matter of fact and natural, but much is implied and requires a sort of restraint from the singers. Something all of them understood, under Langree's capable direction.

For me, the outstanding performance was Naouri's Golaud. Expressive from the very beginning, shading melancholy into madness, but always human. In an evening of rich subtletly, Naouri won the palm with a performance which was complete without any movement, set or costume.

Alain Vernhes was a fine Arkel, rising to the challenge in his final scenes to give a sympathetic performance.

Khatouna Gadelia was a charming Yniold, conveying simplicity without too much archness, which is always tricky with a mature woman singing the role of a boy. Nahuel di Pierro displayed a lovely rich bass voice as the shepherd and the doctor, I look forward to hearing more of him.

The stage was very full, with the Orchestra de Paris in fine form. They no longer sound distinctively French, but their grasp of the music was strong and all Debussy's interludes told strongly in this concert performance without visual distraction.

The opera start at 6.30pm and finished at 9.45pm with 1 interval. Surely someone at the Barbican could have organised things a bit better. 6.30pm is far too early for a week night concert, but is excusable in a long evening. If we had to start at 6.30pm then couldn't we have a second interval. Pelleas et Melisande is a 5 act work and performing the first 3 acts without an interval is a very long sit. Perhaps, as it was her birthday, Dessay had requested an early finish so she and Naouri (her husband in real life) could go out to dinner!

A superb evening. A fine, subtle performance of one of the 20th century's greatest operas, perhaps greatest opera.


  1. Anonymous4:25 pm

    People from areas outside London were delighted that the performance began at 6 30 pm so that we did not have to leave early.

  2. susannah5:50 pm

    And I would have been very annoyed if there had been two intervals. No, no, no. Wd have been greatly intrusive. Also glad it didn't end up much later than 10 and I live in London.


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