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Pelléas et Mélisande/Dvorak

Royal Opera House/The Barbican

DEBUSSY’Sopera version of Maurice Maeterlinck's prose drama has some wonderful duets and sweeping orchestral moments among the more avant-garde (at times it sounds as if Debussy's only completed opera was written by two different composers), but it does drag on. Indeed, Mélisande's death scene was so protracted that I was quite tempted to storm the stage and finish her off myself.

Of course, you can't blame the production too much for someone clinging to life, but you can blame it for such a static performance. The reason being there were no props. In the first half the only scenery was provided by giant boxes being moved around the stage with a different one opening to depict a different scene. It was like watching an opera being performed in front of a Turner Prize exhibit. The second half had long panes of red and black designs, with one removed at the end of every scene until, hey presto, by the end of the opera the full magnificence of the opera house stage was finally in view.

‘I know rock stars who would overdose for that much hair’

Emmanuel Clolus' set designs might have looked good, possibly in Tate Modern, but caused such restrictions that when Simon Keenlyside ran on to the stage at one point it appeared as if he was releasing some pent-up frustration. It wouldn't have surprised me had he done a triple somersault with a couple of back-flips.

Keenlyside vies with Bryn Terfel as Britain's finest singer/actor on the opera stage (anyone who hasn't seen his live-wire Papageno in The Magic Flute has missed a treat) but he was sadly underused here. The best acting moment of the whole performance came from Tom Norrington, a teenager from Eton College, who played Golaud's son, Yniold. His duet with the always watchable Canadian baritone Gerald Finley (Golaud) at the end of Act One when the father forces his son to spy on Mélisande, his step-mother, and Pelléas sent a chill up the proverbial spine.

The singing, though, and in the end that is the number one priority, was magnificent. Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager was Mélisande, into whose knickers, as we say in South London, Pelléas was trying to get. She floated around in a red dress married to Golaud, Pelléas' half brother. Kirchschlager, always a delight when in recital, looked uncomfortable in this production, especially when hanging from one of the aforementioned boxes. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Golaud and Pelléas' mother, and Robert Lloyd, as the king, Arkel, Golaud's grandfather, were part of a very good cast.

The whole performance was held together by Simon Rattle, who conducted the House orchestra with a passion that can only be found in someone who has a love affair with the French composer.

The previous week I had seen Rattle conduct Dvorak's Cello Concerto and Symphony No 6 with the Orchestra of the Age of Elightenment at The Barbican.

Steve Isserlis was the soloist in a marvellous performance of the cello's greatest concerto. But what will live longer in the memory (sorry Steven but a couple of days later the BBC showed Mstislav Rostropovich play the same piece) was when Isserlis and Rattle walked on stage together - they were like a couple of strays from the sheep-dog trials. I know rock stars who would overdose for that much hair.

Review by Peter Wilson

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