Knowing the Unknowable: The Philharmonia’s Pelléas et Mélisande

Debussy – Pelléas et Mélisande

Pelléas – Stéphane Degout

Mélisande – Sandrine Piau

Golaud – Laurent Naouri

Geneviève – Felicity Palmer

Arkel – Jérôme Varnier

Yniold – Chloé Briot

Un médecin – David Wilson-Johnson

Un berger – Greg Skidmore

Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Concert performance directed by David Edwards.  

With a work where so much is intimated and left unsaid, it may well be in concert that Pelléas et Mélisande can take its definitive form.  Tonight we were given a highly imaginative mise en espace by David Edwards. It used the entire choir area as well as the front of the Royal Festival Hall stage to create stage pictures that were constantly haunting.  Together with some highly sensitive lighting effects by Colin Grenfell and the occasional presence of the chorus as the beggars or serving women, it created a most effective framework for the action to develop and evolve.  There was one small thing that grated.  A narration by Gerard McBurney, sensitively delivered by Sara Kestelman, felt superfluous and distracted as she constantly repeated what had happened in the previous act and what was yet to come.  This was especially regrettable given that the diction of the entire cast was completely and utterly comprehensible at all times.  This was a performance that put the text first and it was given by a cast of truly outstanding singer-actors.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting certainly helped with this.  He always kept the orchestra at a level where the singers could always be heard and the words were able to come through.  His conducting was for me perhaps the least successful element of the show.  The opening came from nothing, revelling in its grainy half-lights.  It was dispassionate and cool and while this is certainly an approach that is at one with a vision of the work, I longed for something that gave us a true sense of release where it mattered.  For example, at the end of Act 4, where the protagonists finally declare their love in an almost orgasmic fashion with cries of ‘ta bouche’, I really feel that the orchestra needs to be driving forward and almost exploding at this point.  Yet, Salonen chose a deliberately moderate tempo and added an awkward break just at the point when the music should be driving forwards.  Yes, it is a valid interpretation and yes, it does mean that a sense of release was impossible as the lovers were ultimately doomed, it’s just that I craved something that gave us as much of a resolution as this work could possibly give us.  The orchestral playing was indeed very fine although, perhaps due to Salonen’s more deliberate approach, it felt somewhat tentative and that they could have benefitted from a couple more rehearsals to truly master the work.  It was extremely well played though without a doubt.

If the orchestral playing was very fine then the singing truly was exceptional.  Stéphane Degout was the Pelléas of one’s dreams.  If the mark of a great singer is someone who makes you believe for the course of the show that he is the only person in the world who can sing this music, then Degout is a truly great singer.  The voice is in marvellous shape – warm and rock-steady with a remarkable sheen and he opens up thrillingly at the very top.  The tessitura held absolutely no terrors for him.  The lyricism that he found in Act 4’s ‘on dirait que ta voix a passé sur la mer au printemps’, was completely and utterly captivating.  His was as fine an assumption of this role as one is ever likely to hear.  Outstanding.

Sandrine Piau’s Mélisande was a great match.  The voice isn’t the largest but the role fits her like a glove and she has an artlessness that is perfect for it.  Her singing of the opening of Act 3 ‘mes longs cheveux descendent jusqu’au seuil de la tour’ was so lyrical and easy.  The voice had a firm bottom and, like Degout’s, opened up wonderfully at the top.  Her diction was immaculate and she managed to encapsulate the mystery and agelessness of this enigmatic character.  Her singing was always musical, often ravishing and she achieved so much from so little.  While she was a watchable stage presence, everything she did came from the voice and from the text.

At first I found that Laurent Naouri’s Golaud was somewhat prosaic.  It took him a little while to find the poetry in the text.  Yet as he developed into the character, he became a magnetic figure.  The spying scene with Yniold was painful to watch – a man previously so strong, losing it and trying to find his place in the world that is Allemonde.  His Act 5 cries of ‘Mélisande’ at the top of the voice were so perfectly vocalized, never overdone, yet the core of the tone was firm and rich.  Chloé Briot’s Yniold offered us a beautifully youthful soprano sung with easy tone and miraculous diction.  She was also convincingly boyish.  Jérôme Varnier’s Arkel was interesting.  He is a fine singer and his resiny bass is a pleasure to listen to.  He brought out genuine poetry in the text and yet he is perhaps a bit young for the role.  The bottom of the voice lacked the true resonance of the finest Arkels but I would certainly relish the possibility of hearing him again in the role in a decade or two’s time.  Perhaps he might like to consider singing Golaud – I imagine the role would be a good fit for him.  Felicity Palmer brought her customary stage presence to Geneviève.  If the voice took a little while to settle in her reading of the letter, her verbal acuity really was remarkable.  Both Greg Skidmore and David Wilson-Johnson as the Shepherd and Doctor respectively were highly effective.

This was a very special performance of this highly enigmatic work, interpreted by a cast at the very highest level.  It is regrettable that there was only one performance – a cast such as this needs to be heard again and again.  I very much hope that the Philharmonia has recorded it to be released on its own label.  It was a truly extraordinary evening, one that will stay with me for a very long time.

Pelléas CC


  1. I was very much excited reading your comments on Pelléas et Mélisande of the Royal Festival Hall. First, Stéphane Degout has become, in a very short period of time a favourite of mine: having listened to him in Hamlet and Ipigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris /Thater an der Wien), I think that indeed he may be a very goog Pelleas as you also put it. The rest of the cast, I have not heard Sandrine Piau sing, except through discs, so prefer not to stop there. However Laurent Naouri, I have heard him in Paris in several masterpieces and now think that he is at his best, since a couple of years. So I can very well imagine his Golaud as being a good one. Thank you for sharing. Ayşe Oktem

  2. Thanks very much for reading. Mr Degout gave me a great deal of pleasure with his Pelléas and also his Oreste in Iphigénie en Tauride in Vienna last month. It was a fantastic cast.

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