Pelléas et Mélisande - Barbican, 19 April 2011
Pelléas et Mélisande is undoubtedly a tough opera to pull off, but a French orchestra and mostly French cast at least brought a bit of Gallic authenticity to the Barbican's concert version (as concocted for the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris). With singers all parked behind music stands, Natalie Dessay's beaded gown provided the only visual reference to Debussy's opera. Crystals sparkled like stars on black chiffon above a hem embroidered with foaming waves - the dark night and the restless sea in a size 36.
It's popular to see Mélisande as a pre-Freudian study in female neurosis, tempting many singers into flapping histrionics. But Natalie, with her still-girlish timbre, could instead conjure a sweet and guileless innocent. The part is no technical stretch for her, and it was in the ease and weightless clarity of her singing that an other-worldly dimension emerged, a hint of the damage buried deep inside.
Simon Keenlyside has played Pelléas many times - but not usually with his arm strapped up in a sling. It didn't seem to cause him any problems though, and his boyish diffidence complemented Dessay perfectly.
As in Laurent Pelly's recent production (available on DVD), Natalie's real-life spouse Laurent Naouri played her husband, Golaud. With the tender and wholly appropriate simplicity of his first act, he brought real subtlety to a character too often seen as merely a blustering bully. His dryish timbre is no real disadvantage in this role.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Geneviève was a luxury, and the all-round excellent cast was completed by Alain Vernhes (Arkel), Khatouna Gadelia (Yniold) and Nahuel Di Pierro (Doctor).
The only real disappointment - and it was a big one - was the stolid, unimaginative conducting of Louis Langrée. The Orchestre de Paris played competently enough, but Pelléas demands clarity and a delicate touch to bring out the nuances of the orchestration.
Langrée instead drowned everything in a lush Massenet-flavoured syrup. This worked, after a fashion, in the sweeping drama of the action-packed third act finale and fourth act. But the meditative beginning and end are written on a smaller scale, one that demands crystalline textures and the sort of attention to detail that Natalie Dessay brought to her subtly inflected singing. Otherwise it's dull as mud. It was only the quality of the singing that brought me back for the second half (not everyone was so patient - I noticed a few empty seats.)
I thought at first that the solitary (and shocking) boo heard just a microsecond after the last note must be directed at Langrée, but no. Apparently it was an American visitor's way of complaining that his view of Dessay was blocked by a music stand. Unbelievable. At least a swift round of Happy Birthday to mark Natalie Dessay's 46th ended the evening on a more cheerful note.