When I interviewed him a few years ago, John Eliot Gardiner told me that he sees the future of opera as “beyond the proscenium arch,” with concert performances becoming a more frequent and richly-rewarding contribution to the art form. That’s not surprising perhaps from a conductor more often associated with the concert hall than the stage and the BBC Proms has given us some fine opportunities to see him putting it into practise. Last year’s Der Freischütz, in French with recitatives by Berlioz, was a fascinating and uplifting experience and Gardiner returned this year, with his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique for a further semi-staging that placed one of the programme’s highlights in the first weekend of the season.
If there are advantages to seeing operas in concert, they do of course benefit from having been previously performed in full and this performance came courtesy of the Opéra Comique in Paris’s 2010 production, with its main cast intact. This meant fully committed performances and not a vocal score in sight. With a minimum of movement but some imaginative placings, the singers were able to communicate the action superbly. It might be possible to joke that Pelléas et Mélisande lacks action (an opera where nothing happens five times) but in reality it’s an intensely dramatic work with an enthralling libretto.
The atmosphere of the opera may immediately bring to mind darkness and dankness, dripping caves, damp vaults and unlit castle rooms but in fact a lot of it takes place in the open air, with the first well scene in sweltering sunshine and the tower love duet on a beautiful, balmy night. Gardiner and his period instrument forces brought out all the colours and moods of this magnificent score with infinite delicacy and sensuality.
The balance of voices was just as effective. In Phillip Addis and Karen Vourc’h were two youthful and attractive leads and Laurent Nouri, surprisingly also making his Proms debut, was an insinuating Golaud, gorgeous of voice and with a cruelty all the more affecting for its subtlety. John Tomlinson, the one familiar face present, brought his characteristic authority and great compassion to Arkel and, as Geneviève, Elodie Méchain’s true alto was as penetrating as the male voices, while Dima Bawab was a sweet Yniold.
It’s almost a quarter of a century since Gardiner brought Pelléas et Mélisande to the Proms, with his Lyons Opera production, and this one will live as long in the memory. It’s truly one of the greatest opera scores of the twentieth century and a fitting way to kick off the Proms tribute in the composer’s 150th Anniversary year. Although Debussy never completed another opera, there’s plenty more of his work to come, including his rarely-performed incidental music for The Martyrdom of St Sebastian on 25 August.