Prom 3: Pelléas et Mélisande

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

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BBC Proms 2012‘Debussy’s orchestra was something miraculous. Its role was to speak with the public, letting them know what is happening.’ Soprano Mary Garden’s insight (on hearing the first rehearsals of Pélleas in 1902) was brilliantly illustrated in last night’s performance by John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR). Expectations were low: how could an unstaged opera of such subtlety, a work of untold stories that breathes mystery and dreamlike suggestion, possibly communicate in a cavernous hall seating 6000? That it did with such immediacy is down to the electric conducting of Gardiner, the highly textured timbres and wonderfully balanced playing of the ORR, and a cast of real stature: Laurent Naouri, a lean, Giacometti-like shadow, is one of the great Golauds of our time; Sir John Tomlinson was ineffably touching as Arkel and Karen Vourc’h is a natural Mélisande, with that elusive quality of youth in her voice.

There was an energetic directness to Gardiner’s approach: around the still figures of Golaud and Mélisande the restless, mercurial score surged and ebbed, warning, threatening, soothing, enchanting, exposing cruelty, snatching at hope.

That each pianissimo note came across pin-sharp in the Albert Hall from an orchestra of that size, playing on gut strings, is a measure of Gardiner’s skill. The singers, particularly Karen Vourc’h, did not always judge volume and focus so finely, and we lost a few of her important utterances, though her beguiling aria on letting her hair fall, choreographed as a port de bras, was a sensuous highlight.

Canadian Phillip Addis, as Pélleas, caught the right note of bright virility, and increasing desperation, while Jordanian soprano Dima Bawab made a convincing boy Yniold in the highly disturbing scenes between her and her father. Both she and Addis acted with conviction, despite an apparent absence of consistent direction: while Yniold stood on her father’s shoulders and Addis and Vourc’h were allowed one passionate embrace, Golaud inexplicably withdrew from any interaction, even facing the other way when he first sees Mélisande by the pool. No one was credited with staging, and the lack of coherence was dramatically undermining.

Having said that, what came across most strongly was no Symbolist enigma, but the all-too familiar, raw tragedy of an abusive man destroying his family – an achievement in the circumstances.

In his programme note Christopher Cook maintains Pélleas was an artistic cul de sac, an experiment that bore no fruit: surely Kaija Saariaho in her L’amour de loin, a century later, has proved otherwise?

Listen to this Prom again on iPlayer. The BBC Proms run every day until 8 September.