Strip away the colour from Debussy’s great music-drama, and the plot you are left with has a bourgeois banality: a marital deception, culminating in the cuckold slaying his rival, and his wife dying of shock in childbirth.
But Debussy was dealing in a dream-reality infinitely more real than the everyday sort: his people are lost in the forest of their emotions, and in his world the symbolism of water – seas, fountains, pools – pervades everything.
And though his music paints nature in every bar, Debussy was adamantly opposed to this work being unveiled in unstaged concert form; he would have loved what Graham Vick did with it in his Glyndebourne production, where the action took place on a wall-to-wall carpet of flowers. Yet Louis Langree and the Orchestre de Paris – plus a brilliant line-up of soloists – made such a success of it on the bare Barbican stage that the audience was left sitting in rapt silence after the last descending chords had died away.
Debussy had wanted to evade the influence of Wagner by creating something quintessentially French, but the orchestral interludes are still Wagnerian, and here came over with lovely amplitude. The vocal style, however, was Debussy’s own, following the speech-patterns of the libretto, one note to each syllable, in a continuous flow with a serenely somnambulistic momentum. Langree and his singers maintained that momentum throughout.
Simon Keenlyside’s Pelleas had a burnished, manly tone which Natalie Dessay’s unworldly Melisande nicely complemented; Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Queen Genevieve and Alain Vernhes as King Arkel were unimprovably convincing; Khatouna Gadelia made a credibly vulnerable little boy as Yniold, and sang with appealing grace.
But the tour de force was Laurent Naouri’s magnificent incarnation of the cuckolded huntsman Golaud: a good man driven to homicidal madness by his masochistic desire to know every detail of his child-bride’s infidelity. The scene in which he incites his son to look through the window of his bedroom and describe what he sees was turned here - with the woodwind and brass ratcheting up the erotic charge - into an orgy of desperate voyeurism. The careworn beauty of Naouri’s tone wrung the heart, as did Vernhes’s description of the lonely way the human soul likes to take its leave of life.