What a treat for my first Prom of 2018! I’ve tried to get under the skin of Claude Debussy’s only full-length opera Pelléas et Mélisande with recordings but it’s not easy. Tonight’s semi-staged prom performance got me past that block. And what a treat it was, a full Glydebourne Festival cast with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Pelléas et Mélisande isn’t an opera to which you can close your eyes and let the music take you there but, happily, we now get surtitles, even in the Albert Hall.
The translation makes all clear except of course it misses out on some of the linguistic finesse, the intentional switch from the familiar tu to the formal vous and the double-entendres, but the surtitles mitigate the worst of the dubious French diction.
Debussy’s score is full of texture and detail, which plays well in the hall where you can hear in to the texture and maybe see the instruments; I hope that detail came over via the microphones, if not, I guess that many listeners’ full concentration will not have lasted to the last act unless following with a score or script.
The singers are very close to the prommers in the arena and the lights are not fully dimmed down so there is plenty of eye contact. The effect is like a private performance between those of us at the front and the singers on stage, with a couple of thousand further back in the hall listening in, as well as those invisible at home listening in on the radio. And this rapport is particularly important for Debussy’s opera with such suspense and intensity, which also means it is heavy on symbolism but light on physical action. One of those performances where the Proms audience’s famous attention and silences are riveting, compounding the intensity of Debussy’s sound world and the drama being enacted on the stage. The hushed silence after the last note lasted for a count of fully twenty.
And why? Maurice Maeterlinck’s script and story is initially apparently a banal fairy tale but it insidiously develops into a gripping metaphysical drama with its own weird language and conventions. The drama - and music - builds to a thrilling climax at the end of Act 4, then Act 5 is bleak and nihilist. There’s a baby that doesn’t cry but is confirmed as breathing, the main characters are dead but continue to walk and talk. Such an utterly bleak conclusion grips the audience almost to tears and, as I mentioned, left a cathartic silence for a count of at least twenty before numerous “curtain-calls”, in quotes as there is no curtain.
Calling out individual singers, they all received high acclaim but particularly the three principals, Christina Gansch (Mélisande), John Chest (Pelléas) and Christopher Purves (Golaud) and the conductor Robin Ticciati; and they all acknowledged warmly the musicians of the London Philharmonic Orchestra who played magnificently.
Sore feet but very happy, an emotional firework but a fitting treat as my first Prom for five years, having been unable to use my 2013 arena full season pass after I had been knocked off my bike. Then enjoying reflecting on the performance whilst walking home through South Kensington, past the blue plaque marking one of Benjamin Britten’s homes.
Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
Christina Gansch (Mélisande)
John Chest (Pelléas)
Christopher Purves (Golaud)
Brindley Sherratt (Arkel)
Karen Cargill (Geneviève)
Chloé Briot (Yniold)
Glyndebourne Festival Opera
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robin Ticciati (conductor)