A powerful account of Debussy's only operaA powerful account of Debussy's only opera

Wolfgang Holzmair (bar) Pelléas Anne Sofie von Otter (mez) Mélisande Laurent Naouri (bar) Golaud Alain Vernhes (bass) Arkel Hanna Schaer (mez) Geneviève Florence Couderc (sop) Yniold Jérôme Varnier (bar) A Doctor, A Shepherd

Radio France Chorus; French National Orchestra / Bernard Haitink

Naïve V4923 (160‘ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon

Bernard Haitink has always had a soft spot for French music, where his control of texture and pace often brings out beauties and strengths that other conductors do not find. Pelléas et Mélisande, for which long-term flow is a crucial requirement, is ideally suited to his talents. He has the ability, like a good games player, to create his own time and space. He gives us a deeply serious and powerful interpretation of the opera.

Throughout, the beauty, energy and brilliance of the orchestral playing ride over an undertow of melancholy and impending disaster, echoing that ‘strange air’ Mélisande has of someone who, in Arkel’s words, ‘is always waiting for some great sorrow in the sunshine in a lovely garden’. Haitink is well served by his singers. Holzmair is a fresh-voiced, ardent but elegant Pelléas, and innocent enough to make his entrapment plausible. Even the slight signs of tiring on his high notes in Act 4 can be heard as portraying vulnerability. Von Otter plays Mélisande in the traditional way as timid and fatally seductive. But she brings more vibrato to her top notes than some other interpreters and this gives her timidity a slightly used, passive-aggressive colouring, as though she has employed her don’t-touch-me gambit several times in the past, and has found it works. 

Laurent Naouri is a supremely intelligent Golaud, slow to jealousy and anger, but terrifying when the dam finally bursts. By contrast, in the final act he’s the image of a spiritually lost soul and his choked cries of ‘Mélisande!’ are truly heart-rending. Alain Vernhes’s Arkel has that ‘goodness’ in his tone that the composer wanted, though his pitching, hitherto perfect, wanders somewhat in Act 5. 

 

DVD Recommendation

Neill Archer (bar) Pelléas Alison Hagley (sop) Mélisande Donald Maxwell (bar) Golaud Kenneth Cox (bass) Arkel Penelope Walker (contr) Geneviève Samuel Burkey (treb) Yniold Peter Massocchi (bar) A Doctor, A Shepherd Welsh National Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Pierre Boulez 

Stage and Video director Peter Stein 

DG 073 030-9GH2 (158‘ · NTSC · 4:3 · PCM stereo, 5.1 & DTS 5.1 · 0 · N/s) Recorded live 1992 Buy from Amazon

This is, in every respect, a model of what a DVD ought to be, a perfect realisation in picture and sound of Debussy’s sole and inspired opera. Peter Stein staged the work for Welsh National Opera in 1992 and won universal praise, as did Pierre Boulez for his conducting.

Within austere, wholly appropriate sets, beautifully lit by Jean Kalman, Stein catches the very essence of this singular and elusive piece. Each of the 15 scenes is given its own distinctive décor in which the action is played out on several levels – high for the tower scenes, low for the eerie, subterranean grottoes, for instance. A masterstroke is the subtle evolution from one scene to another in view of the audience, offering a visual counterpoint to the interludes.

Stein sees that Debussy’s instructions are scrupulously observed. In fact, as a whole, this is an object-lesson in modern staging. Stein and his collaborators reflect the ebb and flow of crude realism and fragile dream-life that per­meate the score, which Boulez has identified as lying at its heart. Director and conductor worked closely with each other over a six-week rehearsal period, something unlikely to occur today, so Boulez’s interpretation is in complete accord with the staging, his musical direction at once direct and luminous, timbres finely balanced one with the other. 

The cast also benefited from the long gestation. Alison Hagley catches ideally the paradox that is Mélisande, candour married to duplicity, and sings the enigmatic character with an acute ear for French syllables. Neill Archer, though not quite as responsive to the French language, is a poetic, youthfully ardent Pelléas. Donald Maxwell’s Golaud rightly stands at the centre of the production, conveying guilt, jealousy and self-torment in tellingly intense tones. Kenneth Cox is a grave, world-weary Arkel, Penelope Walker a properly dignified, compassionate Gene­viève. The treble singing Yniold is re­mark­ably assured. This is a riveting experience.

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