Pelleas et Melisande, review: Salonen and a brilliant solo line-up triumph with Debussy's opera

Philharmonia, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s ideas are inexhaustible, and his latest, ‘City of Light: Paris 1900-1950’, has generated a very fruitful season. Taking Paris as a parallel universe to Vienna, he argues that while the Viennese cultural revolution was played out by the end of the Thirties, the Parisian one is still going strong, thanks to the enduring power of Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Messiaen. 

And it was with Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande that Salonen and his Philharmonia Orchestra began their Parisian journey, in a concert performance as dramatic as any fully-staged one: the opera’s symbolism turns on passion and pallor, darkness and light, and lighting contrasts (plus the occasional prop) were all that was needed to reflect the musical colour-shifts which conductor, players, and singers observed so exquisitely.

And what fabulous soloists: baritone Stephane Degout’s sublime lost-boy Pelleas countered by Sandrine Piau’s waif-like Melisande; soprano Chloe Briot’s vivid little Yniold and mezzo Felicity Palmer’s commanding Genevieve; and dominating all, Laurent Naouri’s terrifying Golaud: no other baritone alive can match this French singer’s dark power in this masochistic, murderous role. We also got a portentously Cocteauesque commentary, but these singers acted so well with their voices and bodies that the menace and pathos of this disturbingly Freudian tale needed no extraneous literary crutch.