If anyone can single-handedly renew the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, it is surely Stéphane Denève, the new music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Given his determination not only to make every RSNO concert an event, but also his decision to make Glasgow his home, his initiation at the local Golf World centre and his recent appearance in a kilt, he stands a good chance of succeeding. His face has scarcely been absent from the Scottish press in the past few weeks, his earnest conviviality filling up many column-inches. In the light of the depressingly small houses for last week's surtitled concert performances of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande he desperately needs to renew the entente cordiale between this orchestra and its audience.
It may be his mass of fair curls or his Schubertian profile that stood out as he approached the podium, but as soon as the 33-year-old Denève lifted his baton the intensity of the musical performance became almost tangible. As the work progressed it became clear that the RSNO has struck lucky in attracting a conductor with such inspired powers of persuasion. His debut at Covent Garden last year was with Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte but Pelléas is the opera closest to his heart, and he knew exactly how to shape Debussy's subtle phrases, to make evocative use of his silences and to pave and mould this most elusive of scores. Best of all, in collaboration with the director Emmanuelle Cordoliani, he succeeded in bringing an effectively light touch to the semi-staging.
The story of the doomed medieval princess who falls in love with her husband's half-brother unfolded with compelling inevitability. Denève had assembled a mainly French cast without a weak link, a silvery-voiced Natalie Dessay as Mélisande oppressed by her real-life husband Laurent Naouri as a severe Golaud, with Jean-François Lapointe a sensitive, tender Pelléas. As Yniold, Emmanuelle de Negri played her role touchingly while Robert Lloyd and Catherine Wyn-Rogers brought authority to the old-timers, Arkel and Geneviève.
Refined it may have been, but there was no mistaking the powerful passions surging beneath the surface, making Radio 3's decision not to record this well-nigh perfect performance all the more frustrating. With the instruments of the RSNO regrouped, the sound in Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall was markedly improved on recent times and the orchestra very nearly stole the show with its polished playing, translucent sound and remarkable responsiveness.
But, given the Scots' apparent indifference to high-quality music-making - with Scottish Opera currently only flickering offstage through a lack of adequate funding - it may take every gram of Denève's Gallic charm and inspired and communicative music-making to attract the appreciative following that he and the RSNO deserve.Reuse content