Time flies. It’s now getting on for eight years since Debussy’s only completed opera was last seen at Covent Garden, conducted by Simon Rattle, show-casing the exquisite Mélisande of Angelka Kirchschlager, the whole wrapped up in an unrevivably bad staging dredged up from the darker recesses of Salzburg’s vast and ever-expanding stock of Eurotrash kept in storage like so much putrefying meat. Since then, London has had to content itself, doubtless just as well, with concert performances of the work: first at the Barbican in April 2011, when Rattle’s Pelléas, Simon Keenlyside, bade farewell to the role – broken arm and all – with the Orchestre de Paris under Louis Langrée; and then again in 2012, at the Proms, with John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Romantique et Révolutionnaire performing their usual forensic cleansing act. Both of these concert presentations were pretty strictly just that, without any attempt to achieve either by lighting or design – or even the surely-simpler-to-arrange costuming – any meaningful semblance of theatrical representation.

Tonight’s presentation, however, was an entirely different proposition, marking the auspicious start of the Philharmonia’s season-long series entitled “City of Light. Paris 1900-1950” devoted to works either written for, or premiered in, the French capital (Pelléas was first staged in 1902, but was actually composed in short score during 1893-5, orchestrated and slightly revised in 1898 once the Opéra-Comique – then as now at the third Salle Favart – had accepted it for performance, so they’re stretching a point, but not by much). As it happens, the Golaud in tonight’s performance – Laurent Naouri – also sang the role here in both the concerts mentioned above, at the first of which he was playing the role of Mélisande’s husband next to his actual wife, Natalie Dessay (whose final performance in London as a classical soprano this turned out to be, though no-one at the time would have been aware of the fact, including I rather imagine the soprano herself). But if M. Naouri is a common link between these three concert outings of the same opera – mute but eloquent testimony not only to the work’s musical magnificence but surely also, alas, the likelihood these days of encountering a staging that did anything other than mock or misrepresent – with him the resemblance ends, for tonight there was a billed director – David Edwards – and a credited lighting designer, Colin Grenfell, who between them managed to conjure up a very reasonable simulacrum of the kind of thing Debussy wanted.

As early as 1890, years before actually seeing Maurice Maeterlinck’s all-the-rage fin-de-siècle Symbolist masterpiece in the theatre, Debussy had written to his friend Ernest Guiraud – he of the Carmen orchestral recitatives – saying that, apropos opera in general and his current highly unsatisfactory (and in the event unfinished) labours on Rodrigue et Chimène in particular: “My ideal would be two interconnected dreams. No time, no place. No big scene or spectacle. Music in opera is far too dominant. There’s too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome… My ideal would be a short libretto with fluid scenes. No discussion or arguments between the characters, who I see at the mercy of life or destiny”. The composer could virtually be describing Pelléas et Mélisande both as it exists as a play, and as he set it (minimally cut, removing the domestic servants’ scenes, all with Maeterlinck’s ready consent, at least until Debussy decided to go with Mary Garden as the heroine rather than Maeterlinck’s mistress Georgette Leblanc, at which point the author had a hissy fit, was only just prevented from challenging the composer to a duel, and resolutely turned his back on the entire project, hoping it would fail and steadfastly refusing to see it while Debussy was alive).

The only staging I’ve ever seen that lived up to Debussy’s demands was my very first, at the ROH, when Josef Svoboda produced a set almost entirely out of projected light, gauze and chicken-wire which wholly obliterated not only considerations of time and place, but spatial relationships altogether (you could never work out where the floor ended and the back wall began, or even where people were actually standing. When Mélisande’s tower slowly corkscrewed up from the stage floor in total darkness, her hair falling down the length of it as it rose and rose, with her softly backlit, leaning out, the whole audience gasped). It was the most remarkable thing to see, and nothing I’ve encountered since has come remotely close. But tonight’s account was certainly preferable to any other staging I’ve seen, with their usual feeble-minded insistence on particularising – an Edwardian hotel with Mélisande laid out on a billiard table, as at Glyndebourne, dear God – and as a result the whole work was liberated and able to soar, though I can’t say that for me Sara Kestelman’s brief, Maeterlinck-derived verbal entr’actes of dubious relevance added much value beyond forestalling unwanted applause (and, insult to injury, they misspelled her name in the programme). The basic performance unit was, of course, the RFH platform itself, shrouded in clouds of light-catching water-vapour mist, with the five principals present ab initio sitting blindfolded up in the otherwise emptied-out choir seats, and only removing them when it was their turn to sing, descending to the front of the stage with the orchestra ranged behind them, working from stand-lights in the otherwise blacked-out auditorium. Utterly simple, thoroughly effective.

But this sensible and sensitive semi-staging would only have got us so far and no further without the uniform excellence of the entire musical side of proceedings, about which the sternest thing(s) I have to say are that the superbly commanding bass Jérôme Varnier – a most disconcertingly youthful and hot-looking Arkel – needs to watch the top of his voice in the higher reaches of this role, where his otherwise firm emission develops a distinctly looser semi-flap; and that I really, really would have preferred a boy singing Yniold, vocal unevennesses and all, simply for the sake of verisimilitude, where a soprano – here Chloé Briot – however gamine in appearance and treble-like in timbre (as Ms. Briot actually isn’t in either case) creates a jarring, conventionally operatic trouser-role effect, as if Cherubino or Octavian had wandered on, when Debussy plainly intended no such thing.

And that’s the end of any real criticism I might have to offer. Felicity Palmer, an en passant croak or two lower down in the voice apart, was a definitive Geneviève, the upper range undimmed by the passing years. Laurent Naouri is, I suspect, now a bit past his absolute vocal prime: but his ability to “live” a role, even in concert, is a more than adequate recompense for a slight loosening of tone and focus at odd moments (and God knows you could say as much of his wife, whose decision to pack it in prematurely grieves me more from day to day, the very worst case of “So soon!!!???” – as opposed to the far more customary “About time!!!!” – since Julia Varady: and I’ve never forgiven, or indeed forgotten, her either). More to the point, Naouri’s realisation of the role of Golaud is so sympathetic that he actually manages to recalibrate an audience’s natural response to Arkel’s soothing “Ce n’est pas votre faute/ It isn’t your fault” in Act V – the deaths of both the titular characters – away from the usual “Oh yes it bloody well is!” to a more measured “Well, no, not entirely”. But then, as a truthful depiction of the corrosive effects of human jealousy, Debussy’s opera leaves the cartoonish posturings of, say, Othello/Otello, sitting up a tree scratching its fur anyway, and it’s Naouri’s achievement to give us a portrayal so very, heartbreakingly, true to the conflicting complexities of real life.

We were supposed to have Monica Bacelli as Mélisande. She was indisposed, however, and at “extremely short notice” Sandrine Piau – a singer who, in London at least, makes Cecilia Bartoli’s track-record of cancellations look insignificant – rode to the rescue. Frail-looking and nervy, yet capable of sudden flashes of transfiguring warmth, with a voice in pristine condition and complete technical control, Ms. Piau was nothing short of a revelation, and the fact that we see her here so little is entirely our loss. She lacks the inherently larmoyante timbre that made Frederica von Stade’s Mélisande so memorably tragic: and in an ideal world she could do with a bit more volume with which to handle the fearsome vocal demands (on all concerned) of Act IV; but she is a first-rate actress and a superb singer, and she persuaded me utterly of the role’s inherent innocence (a tough task in these times).

And then there was Stéphane Degout as Pelléas, a role written for a baryton-martin, a peculiar French hybrid that isn’t entirely explained by “high baritone” in English, because you can be as high as they come in terms of upward extension and still sound wrong for the repertory, as can low tenors. In fact, M. Degout sounds to me like a straightforward, full-bodied lyric baritone, and Act IV is indeed a bit of a stretch for him, range-wise. But a certain element of strain at this point in the drama works with the characterisation in any case, the man being quite literally at the end of his emotional tether – and life, as it transpires – so that the sense of a singer passing out of their comfort zone vocally and forcing is no great sin providing it’s not doing them any damage (and only time will tell on that front). He was simply thrilling, a voice of wonderfully firm focus, perfectly even throughout its – here extended – range, of quite exceptional beauty and power, and remarkable in its expressive impact. If in theory I prefer a tenor as Pelléas – if only to vary the otherwise unbroken litany of basses and baritones elsewhere in the cast – I can’t think who in the world today I’d rather hear in the role: and in much else besides. He gave himself unstintingly in this performance – they all did, to be fair – and was in no small measure responsible for its quite unexpectedly overwhelming emotional impact that reduced any number of those present to a dreadful state by the end.

The other major contributor to this – apart from Debussy himself: is there a more affecting work in the repertory? – was Esa-Pekka Salonen, who seems to me a born opera conductor (and really rather wasted on a lot of the Germanic-based repertoire he elects to conduct). Well, him, and his glorious orchestra. In some ways it’s ironic that the Philharmonia, easily London’s most German-sounding band with its fat, burnished strings and dark, rich melos, should sound so at home in French music, which is all about prominent, bright winds and brass (more like the LSO, in fact): but it does, and did so here. Of course, the elephant in this particular room is Wagner; and the Wagner of Parsifal, above all. The very first orchestral interlude in Act I of Pelléas takes a turn that virtually dumps us not into the castle in Allemonde but the Graalsaal at Montsalvat, and throughout there is a certain weightless, floaty quality to the scoring – at once both detailed but diaphanous – that owes everything to the old magician sitting in his castle in Bayreuth.

Perhaps it is this which attracts Salonen – like Karajan before him – in the first place. But the scrupulous care with the sound was sifted and balanced, the colours blended and spread-out, made the orchestra the opera’s true protagonist tonight. With a full compliment of 60 strings and 25 wind and brass, they sounded absolutely glorious, both in full cry, and – much more frequently – in sotto voce contemplation. So much so that, given the current standards at the ROH, both of staging – deliberately contemptuous, and therefore beneath contempt – and of playing – their band’s gruesome brass incapable of getting through a single performance of anything, even Minkus ballets, without catastrophe somewhere along the line – we’re very lucky that at least the Philharmonia can mount a performance as nigh-on perfect as this on all fronts. Long may they continue to do so. Notwithstanding the few trifling reservations expressed above, I couldn’t with a clear conscience give this anything other than 5 stars

5 stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor