With the first iridescent notes emanating from the orchestra pit, the curtain rises on a uniformly blue-hued space divided by perpendicular lines. Immediately, our eye is drawn to a woman: Mélisande, a gracious silhouette of white light shines out of the shadow. Golaud, also, has seen her. Adrift in this virtual forest, further camouflaged towards the rear of the stage by his black tunic, he addresses the young woman across a space that seems unbridgeable, although no physical obstacle lies in his path. "Do not be afraid. You have nothing to fear. Why are you crying here, all alone?" he asks in the most natural of prose. "Do not touch me", answers Mélisande. "Do not touch me, or I will throw myself into the water...". Their gestures, however, suggest no such thing and in no way correspond with what the libretto is saying. The action of all these characters is at a higher plane, charged with mystery and unreality. All move constantly in an extremely slow dance which seems freely inspired by Japanese theatre. The different tableaux, fineley chiselled by Debussy's music, come across as a series of intensely poetic miniatures.

Robert Wilson's staging of Pelléas et Mélisande is well tried and tested at the Opéra de Paris. But time has not dimmed the enthusiasm provoked by its perfect harmony with the spirit of the work. Opting for a wide open, nearly empty, theatrical space, for great economy of movement and for colours and visual effects, Wilson invits us to open our senses and focus our attention on the drama being unveiled, especially on the seamless vocal lines that carry Maeterlinck's words. Astonishment turns to marvel as we feel the evocative power of these words transformed into music. To our contemporary ears, the harmony of poetry and music is total. No sonic effect is superflous, there is no note that is there for its own sake: everything in Debussy's music serves the drama, and the composer has spared nothing in creating one of his finest jewels.

On the stage at Opéra Bastille, a galaxy of devoted artists are currently assembled in the service of the work. Every singer in the cast list are happily distinguished by their clear and precise diction. Paul Gay is assured in his impersonation of Golaud, who seems like the negative double of his half-brother Pelléas, to whom Stéphane Degout lends a brighter vocal timbre, while Russian soprano Elena Tsallagova's Mélisande, with her voice, her poses and her aerial arm motion, immediately conquers every heart. The secondary roles are no less well served. Worthy of mention is the performance of soprano Julie Mathevet, whose clear timbre passes easily for childlike and perfectly suits the role of the child Yniod, while Franz-Joseph Selig brings true humanity to the part of the old man Arkel.

In the pit, the musicians display their loveliest palettes of colour. The orchestral writing gives the best lines to the winds, and at the heart of each divided desk, the polyphonic lines are fluid and sensual. Philippe Jordan conducts this subtle, introverted music with precision and flexibility.

For indeed, this music of Debussy bucks the trend of most operatic scores which resort to power, contrast and effect: here is a contained music, a music of silence. So why sacrifice Pelléas to a hall where the dryness of the acoustic is matched by the softness of the seats? Especially since, it has to be said, the incessant coughing of listeners beset by winter colds require one to have particularly selective ears? But we must set aside these small cavils and follow Paul Dukas, Gabriel Pierné, Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust's reaction to the work's première in 1902 and cry "masterpiece". For the delicate alchemy starts at the very first notes and plunges us into contemplation, which lasts deliciously even after the final curtain.


Translated from French by David Karlin