In an unusually thin selection of operatic events in this year’s BBC Proms, the traditional transfer of a production from Glyndebourne was something to be viewed with warm anticipation. The fact that Stefan Herheim’s new production of Pelléas et Mélisande had been selected - not an interpretation of Debussy’s masterpiece that found particular favour with critics in Sussex a couple of weeks ago – did not diminish one’s enthusiasm. Indeed, the thought of a reduced arrangement of Herheim’s ideas offered the prospect of a more honed theatrical experience and greater focus on the music itself.

Christina Gansch (Mélisande) and John Chest (Pelléas)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

In retrospect, I’m not entirely convinced that the opera itself is right for the Royal Albert Hall. The fluidity of the vocal structure has a delicacy and textual intensity which deserves a more sympathetic acoustic. It is a testament to the singers that the majority of the libretto was conveyed clearly. The reduction in staging went someway to emphasising Debussy’s ethereal score, but there remained serious irritations within the performance. Choreography in particular was frustrating, bizarre interactions between the cast, particularly the central trio of Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud, which, rather than developing and symbolising the links between the three, instead descended at times into the ludicrous. The baffling deployment of a set of easels within the castle offered nothing but perplexity. One sensed Herheim was reaching for something: an exploration of the visible and invisible, what is real and what is unreal, but his concepts meander and lack backbone.

This was a shame when the musical experience was really rather good. The central trio was strongly cast; Christina Gansch was vocally captivating as Mélisande; she has a soft, lilting soprano of that moonlit quality that is ideally suited to the role, with depth of tone and a whimsical quality to it that gave real character to her interpretation. Although hindered at times by direction, she gave a strong ritualistic performance, giving the impression on several occasions that she had almost relinquished control of herself by her movements and gestures. Quite beguiling indeed. Perhaps the always-enjoyable Christopher Purves provided the most interesting performance as Golaud, a deteriorating mix of filial and romantic love, jealousy and fear which Purves depicted flawlessly (under heavy facial hair). Purves always manages to sound forceful without being forced, and the grit in his tone imbued the voice with menace.

Christopher Purves (Golaud) and Chloé Briot (Yniold)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

John Chest’s Pelléas put me in mind of one of Trollope’s 19th-century dandies, with immaculate summer suit and delicate demeanour. His pale baritone sounds cultivated, but there were one or two moments where more fire was needed; stronger in the first half, particularly in the second act, but perhaps lacking energy for the confrontation in Act 4.

The secondary trio benefited from luxury casting; Brindley Sherratt brought a melancholy dignity to Arkel, conveying more with his posture in the first act than with his voice. Very much a consummate stage singer, his attention to the text was nuanced and keen. Karen Cargill had a woefully small amount to sing as Geneviève – in fairness to Herheim, his deployment of her as the deeply concerned maternal figure was well done – but gave a performance of steel. The bright-toned Chloé Briot brought pathos to Golaud’s neglected son, trotting round stage and largely ignored by the adults until brutalised by Golaud in the third act.

Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic gave a ravishing reading of the score; attuned to the silvery, secretive whispers of Debussy’s music, their performance was the highlight of the evening with every section firing on all cylinders, with the last word deservingly going to the stand-out elegance of the woodwinds.