Friday, 28 November 2014

Pelléas et Mélisande Salonen - smooth or sharp?

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande at the Royal Festival Hall. Over the years, South Bank concerts have been let down by the choice of singers and choirs, but this time we enjoyed an almost ideal team of principals: Sandrine Piau, Stéphane Degout, Laurent Naouri and Jérôme Varnier.

Sandrine Piau created an unusually luminous Mélisande. Her background is in the baroque, though she's adventurous with art song and modern music as well, so her "white" timbre is almost ethereally refined. Her voice rang out pure and clear. This Mélisande felt supernatural.  Perhaps she's an elemental. Not all Lorelei inhabit riverbanks. Some live deep in the forests, enchanting huntsmen. Think Schumann and Heine. Piau's voice is at once transparent and opaque. Her tones sparkle, like light on water,  yet her poise suggests the impenetrability of a mirror which reflects back rather than reveals what lies within: a very good interpretation of who Mélisande might be. The dense forest in Act One isn't physical. Seductive strings, but chilling winds, in every sense.  It's a psychological jungle into which Golaud has strayed. Mélisande's first words are a warning. "Ne me touchez pas."  Piau's looks  also enhance meaning. While she sings of hanging her long blonde hair down from a tower,  we see the gamine of a grown-up Yniold, a boy child sung by an adult woman (Chloé Briot). Suddenly this throws the role of Yniold into greater focus, raising troubling new mysteries. Mélisande, for all her passive loveliness, wreaks havoc on those around her.

Stéphane Degout is the Pelléas of choice these days, so ideally suited to the part that all others pale in comparison. His Pelléas is uniquely complex. When Mélisande leans into the pool of the blind men, Degout's voice takes on a heady mix of horror and excitement: this Pelléas is thrilled by darkness as well  as shiny surfaces. When Pelléas plays with Mélisande, his voice sounds plausibly youthful, yet one senses, too, that Pelléas is  hypnotized by an ardour he can't quite articulate. When, at last, he declares his love, Degout sings with firmenss and authority. If Pelléas survives, he'll emerge a hero, because he has self-knowledge.  If he survives, that is.

Laurent Naouri sang Golaud to Natalie Dessay's Mélisande for Louis Langrée at the Barbican three years ago. His dynamic with Piau is of course different. If anything the dynamic between Naouri and Degout is even more striking. Sometimes Golaud is depicted as a brute, to emphasize the contrast between the brothers, but in many ways they are halves of  the same personality. Naouri is insensitive, but a caring, decent man, captured by forces way beyond his control. When Naouri sings La nuit sera très noire et très froide, his voice opens outwards, creating a sheen of sensitivity.  This is the "Pelléas" aspect of Golaud's personality. Perhaps he might have been more like Pelléas, but, as Mélisande notes, he's turned grey before his time. It's the Allemonde effect, established long before we even reach the palace.

And what is Allemonde?  The very name suggests that it's a metaphor for something much bigger than a castle.  Why is the atmosphere so stifling?  Why are the peasants in the countryside dying?  Jérôme Varnier shows why Arkel is much more than the marginal figure he's sometimes depicted as.  Arkel is the king, the grandfather, a survivor.  Something's very wrong indeed, and it has happened under Arkel's watch. The strength in Varnier's voice and the forcefulness in the vocal writing suggest that Arkel isn't quite the weak old man we might assume. "The last time I kissed you was the day you came", he tells Mélisande. What do we really make of that?  The better the opera, the greater the possibilities of interpretation. Performances like Varnier's remind us just how fascinating Pelléas et Mélisande can be.

Salonen and the Philharmonia are very good, and very good together, and Debussy is a Salonen signature.  Thus I was surprised by the bland over-refinement of this performance. Perhaps the marketing gimmick "Paris City of Light" hangs too heavily, for the "light" in Pelléas et Mélisande is an unhealthy, unholy light, not the sparkle of champagne  and good times. At noon, the sun parches and saps the will. The pool is enticing because it's cool and shadowed. Throughout the opera, Debussy switches between extremes, in order to dislocate and discomfort. Like Yniold, we should be afraid of losing balance. Smoothing out the contrasts might sound nice, but goes against the spirit of the music.  Pelléas et Mélisande may seem beautiful on the surface but surfaces are deceptive. Salonen and the Philharmonia are perfectly capable of producing more bite, but that bite might be too unsettling, given the naffness of the semi-staging (David Edwards)

The lighting (Colin Grenfell)  is wonderfully atmospheric and works well with the music, but why the narration, which consists of diverse chunks of Maeterlinck badly thrown together.  The opera itself is so good that it tells its own story. In principle, narration is fine, but this specific narration was delivered with an archness that was embarrassingly cringeworthy.

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