Australian performances of Debussy’s only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, have been few and far between. Aside from a Sydney Conservatorium production in 1950 (under Eugene Goossens), a production sung in English by Victorian State Opera in 1977 (revived in 1982), and an Opera Australia production in 1998, Australians haven’t had a chance to hear this music live on their own shores. These performances by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Swiss maestro Charles Dutoit, are the first time any of the state orchestras have performed the opera in concert form and a welcome chance for audiences to immerse themselves in one of the landmark operas of the 20th century.

Based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1893 Symbolist play of the same name (which also provided creative fodder for incidental music by Fauré and Sibelius, as well as a symphonic poem by Schoenberg), Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande takes place in the imaginary kingdom of Allemonde.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Pelleas et MelisandeMichaela Selinger, Elliot Madore and Charles Dutoit with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photos © Darren Leigh Roberts

In a similar vein to the Tristan and Isolde legend, the story centres on a love triangle between Prince Golaud (sung here by French baritone Marc Barrard), the mysterious young girl he meets while lost in a forest – Mélisande (Austrian mezzo-soprano Michaela Selinger, who replaced French soprano Sandrine Piau, unable to fly due to a broken foot), and Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas (sung by Canadian baritone Elliot Madore).

Debussy’s opera, which premiered in 1902, is renowned particularly for its complex marriage of text and music – a marriage that makes the work more suitable than many for a concert staging. Pelléas et Mélisande is built more on telling than showing. In many scenes the characters describe their actions so literally that to have them act out the scene might seem like overkill. Instead, the words – set to melodic lines that fit the declamatory rhythms of spoken French – sketch out the action, which the orchestra paints in vivid colours.

At the end of the first act, for instance, Mélisande, Geneviève and Pélleas describe a ship leaving the harbour as a storm brews, wind and turgid water roiling in the orchestra. Altos, tenors and basses from the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs make a cameo as sailors, positioned at the back of the hall, their sound drifting across the audience.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Pelleas et MelisandeMichaela Selinger, Daniel Sumegi, Charles Dutoit, Jerome Varnier, Marc Barrard and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

The scenes of the opera are presented as separate vignettes, paintings or tapestries – set at moments across the story’s timeline – that build a larger picture, a sense of dream-like unease permeating the music right from the opening bassoon and string lines.

Barrard makes an implacable Golaud, his molten, dark-hued baritone pouring through the concert hall. His marriage to the apparently traumatised Mélisande occurs between scenes, leaving the audience’s imagination and Debussy’s enigmatic score to hint at the gaps. There’s a self-possessed confidence to his dismissal of Pelléas and Mélisande’s “childish games” that makes his gradual descent into jealous rage all the more terrifying.

Barrard’s straight-laced performance is perfectly offset by Selinger – who brings a lightness and agility to the role of Mélisande, her sound spritely from the very first breathy “Ne me touchez pas” (do not touch me). She exquisitely conjures soft French vowel sounds out of nothingness, letting them unfurl to float above the orchestra, and the transparent tone she brings to finale act is magical.

Madore’s baritone is softer-edged than Barrard’s, a finely polished sound matching the child-like mischievousness of Selinger’s Mélisande with puppy-dog enthusiasm in their scenes together, but taking on a more anxious timbre as Golaud shows him the castle vaults, Debussy’s score blazing into light as he emerges, when flurries of winds become a musical depiction of the smell of flowers, grass and sea air.

French bass Jérôme Varnier brings his penetrating, bright-edged sound to the role of Arkel, grandfather of Golaud and Pélleas, the patriarch of the family – his melancholy duet with trumpet in the final act is a highlight. Australian Anna Dowsley’s mezzo is beautifully honeyed as his daughter Geneviève (mother of Pelléas and Golaud). If her tone sounds a little forced on the lower notes, the result is still effective, Debussy saving those notes for darker words and sentiments.

Another highlight is French soprano Julie Mathevet in the role of Yniold, Golaud’s son. With a child-like airiness, she conveys the boy’s fear and confusion as he is interrogated and manipulated by his increasingly obsessed father. She gives the part a vocal bounciness without taking the edge off the rising tensions – her scene in Act 4, though it contributes nothing to plot development, serves to delay the violent climax of the opera without letting the tension slacken.

Australian bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi brings a stentorian richness to the role of the Doctor while baritone Simon Lobelson – another Aussie – does a fine job of his single line as the Shepherd.

The singers stay in character while they’re on stage – Mathevet’s eyes dart nervously as Yniold tries to please his father and avert his anger, and Selinger waits anxiously during the orchestral interlude that follows the loss of her wedding ring down a well. It’s only really at the work’s climax, when not every event is narrated by the singers, that the concert format feels slightly lacking – though this doesn’t detract from the power of the music.

Charles Dutoit – the 80-year-old conductor remarkably spry on the podium – carves ever-increasing waves of menace and unease from Debussy’s shimmering, undulating score, binding the recitative-like deliveries of the vocalists with the painterly story-telling of the orchestra and carefully managing the slow-burn of the opera. The SSO is in fine form with solo lines from winds and brass, the full palette of the ensemble put to work.

Dutoit and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra offer a rare chance to be immersed in Debussy’s rich musical world. While Pelléas et Mélisande may require a little more work on the part of the audiences than some of the more standard-fare operas – for those unfamiliar with the work, a bit of research prior to the performance will pay dividends – it’s an incredibly rewarding experience that doesn’t come around very often.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Pelléas et Mélisande at the Sydney Opera House June 24 and 28.


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