Opera at the 2012 Proms began with a performance of Debussy’s only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. Conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the production celebrated the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, and marked the 24 years since Gardiner first brought the work to the Royal Albert Hall with the Opéra de Lyon. This time, he was conducting the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, a period orchestra he formed in 1990 with the purpose of accurately performing music of the 19th century. Together with the Monteverdi Choir and a cast of talented international singers, they brought this tragic yet beautiful tale to life for the Proms audience with passion and elegance.

Pelléas et Mélisande tells the story of a royal love triangle. In the middle of a hunting expedition, the widowed prince Golaud stumbles across the beautiful yet mysterious Mélisande. He quickly marries her, and after receiving the blessing of his grandfather Arkel, returns to his native castle. Almost as soon as they have arrived, things begin to go wrong, and Mélisande falls for Golaud’s brother Pelléas. Although there is an irresistible attraction between the two, tragedy strikes before they are able to act on their true feelings.

The score is absolutely gorgeous, featuring lush, romantic strings and gentle woodwind that, under Gardiner’s baton, never encroached upon the delicate singing. All of the sounds of the castle and its surroundings were incorporated, with sparkling droplets of water and crashing waves depicted instrumentally, slamming doors evoked through percussion, and the image of Mélisande’s famous Rapunzel-like hair conjured by two majestic harps.

So much of the drama of the opera is internalised, with the characters contemplating their problems alone or questioning others to elicit desired information. The lack of a need for complicated direction may make it seem like the perfect choice for a Proms opera, but the decision to semi-stage the work was a wise one, as it allowed the audience to engage with the psychology of the production as well as the sound of it. This worked especially well for Laurent Naouri’s purposefully stiff Goulaud, who spent a lot of time away from the action, often singing his contributions from a velvet arm-chair on the edge of the stage. It conveyed the idea of him as an outsider, too distant to notice the love developing between his wife and his brother, as well as strengthening the theme of wilful blindness which permeates Pelléas et Mélisande as a whole.

Canadian baritone Phillip Addis was well cast as Pelléas, his youth and his light, vibrant sound providing a necessary contrast to Naori’s serious and powerful Goulaud. There wasn’t an intense chemistry between Addis and Parisian soprano Karen Vourc’h’s Mélisande, but he projected an earnestness and naïveté which made the central love story both touching and believable.

Vourc’h was wonderful as Mélisande. Physically, her willowy frame and fairy-tale hair lend her an ethereal quality that is perfectly suited to the role, and she performed with an endearing vulnerability. She has a stunning voice, and one of the most memorable moments of the whole evening occurred when she took to the empty choir stalls (representing her tower) and sang unaccompanied. The Royal Albert Hall was flooded with her beautiful, pure, elegant sound and I found myself wondering how she has not attracted the attention of British opera fans before. This Proms performance will surely result in a rise in her popularity.

Hearing Sir John Tomlinson’s Arkel was also a real treat. He brings an authority and gravitas to the stage which make him the ideal choice for a regal role such as this, and although his voice has changed dramatically with age, it is still full of colour and beauty. As an actor, he is second to none, and he carried the final, emotional scene of the opera with great skill. As a result of Sir John singing the role, I found myself thanking Debussy for giving Arkel the final words of Pelléas et Mélisande. As the ageing king said goodbye to the tragic heroine and doled out wisdom to the remaining cast of characters, the great sadness of the drama became acutely apparent. If you only needed to be provided with one reason to buy a ticket for Prom 3, Sir John Tomlinson would have to be it.

Gardiner and his orchestra produced a creative and skilful performance of one of the most beautiful French operas in existence. The staging, the conducting and, most importantly, the singing, all combined wonderfully, resulting in an extremely successful introduction to opera at this year’s Proms.