Pelleas et Melisande, ENO at the Coliseum

Is there a more evocative, compelling and disturbing opera than Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande? On the strength of this performance, probably not.

ENO's last attempt was a typically trashy David Pountney effort which obscured most of the poetry and ephemeral translucence of the work. ENO were right to borrow Richard Jones' striking production from Opera North for, if nothing else, Jones has a unique ability to tap the essence of all the operas he directs and to withdraw 110% from each and every cast member. It's heartening to see that ENO is still committed to presenting serious hard-hitting music drama too.

The stage pictures provided by Anthony McDonald (designs) and Nicky Gillibrand (costumes) are breathtakingly enhanced by Thomas Webster's exquisite lighting. This is one of the most gorgeous shows to be seen on this stage in years.

The final two acts - where Golaud, Melisande's husband, realising her infidelity with his half brother Pelleas - disintegrates into madness before our eyes is almost too painful to watch. I won't spoil it, but suffice it to say, the way in which Jones directs this poignant and troublesome denouement left me shell-shocked.

Without a superlative cast, Jones' theatrical intuition would have been less effective, but ENO has assembled a faultless cast. Robert Hayward as Golaud gives the performance of his career. Since I last heard him, his voice has become a lot bigger, allowing him to convey Golaud's despair with unflinching power, adding to the pathos of the character.

Joan Rodgers is on far better form than she was in Alcina and melts the heart with her exquisitely voiced Melisande - she has few peers in the French repertory these days. In his first major assignment at ENO, the young baritone Gary Magee is a suitably boyish and naïve Pelleas, never seeming sure what's going on around him or how he's become embroiled in such tragedy, which is exactly the point of this unique impressionistic opera. Not having heard him since Opera North's Don Giovanni, I was taken aback at how instinctively musical his singing has become.

BBC Chorister of the Year, David Wigram plays the young boy Yniold quite splendidly, indeed his performance is all the more remarkable considering he's only thirteen years old. Rebecca de Pont Davies plays Genevieve, mother to both Pelleas and Melisande, with restrained poignancy, especially in the concluding act. Clive Bayley sings eloquently as Arkel the King who's powerless to prevent disaster.

The orchestra too plays this gloriously shimmering score quite superbly under Paul Daniel's loving baton. The only downside is that there are only five more performances. Book now or live to regret it!

Keith McDonnell

Until 8 April 2000 at the Coliseum.