Classical: Exquisite melancholy

PROMS 56 & 57 ROYAL ALBERT HALL/ RADIO 3 LONDON
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The Independent Culture
THE DEATH of Melisande, indeed the whole of the final act of Pelleas et Melisande, is so overwhelming that tears seem the only response. Even in so unsympathetic a setting as the Royal Albert Hall, Debussy's haunting work still casts its spell. Debussy fulfilled his dream in Maeterlinck's play of finding "one who, saying things by halves, would allow me to graft my dream on to his; who could conceive characters whose story and background belonged to no time or place, who... would leave me free".

Debussy had his doubts about concert performance. But his work sets a conundrum: belonging to no time or place, he appears to sanction the whim of any opera director - Peter Sellars set his Pelleas on an LA beach. Monday's adaptation by Annilese Miskimmon of Graham Vick's new production for Glyndebourne takes place in a cold Victorian parlour, where Melisande resembles more a governess than a wayward waif.

Gone are the forests, caves, grottoes, underground passages; gone its unique sense of timelessness; in its place a sense of a work horribly hobbled. In these times of "authentic" performance, it does seem odd that opera directors steer so resolutely in the opposite direction.

The cast was identical with the Glyndebourne run: John Tomlinson's Golaud haunted and hunted, Christiane Oelze's Melisande prim if vocally pretty, Richard Croft's Pelleas lacking in allure. Jean Rigby and Gwynne Howell added ballast while Jake Arditti was a touching Yniold. But the evening belonged to the LPO in luscious, sensuous form, guided by Sir Andrew Davis.

If melancholy is overarching in Pelleas, it's also a familiar characteristic of English music. In Sunday's Prom, Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBCSO brought out despair in both Elgar's Introduction and Allegro and Vaughan Williams's Ninth Symphony. Joshua Bell responded to the wistfulness of Walton's Violin Concerto, though it took Louise Winter, as the crazed Phaedra in Britten's mightily compressed "scena", to galvanise the house. A different creature from Melisande, but fated nevertheless.

Sunday's Prom will be rebroadcast on Radio 3 at 2pm on Wednesday, 8 September

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