Debussy (L') Enfant Prodigue; (La) Damoiselle Elue
''Too good for them'' is one's first reaction to the sleeve-note's reminder that L'enfant prodigue was Debussy's third-time-lucky entry for the Prix de Rome From an academic standpoint it is almost indecently enjoyable, and never more so, I imagine, than here in this recording. The ''Air de Lia'', long familiar as a concert aria (it even had a welcome and mildly surprising place in the programmes of Dame Nellie Melba) comes right at the start: a lament by the prodigal son's mother, not his forsaken girl-friend as I had unthinkingly assumed. Jessye Norman sings it with an ideal combination of richness and grace; the cries of ''Azael'' come from the heart without seeming to be squeezed through the throat as is sometimes the way. Azael, the prodigal himself, preferably should possess the slimcut elegance of a Clement or Vaguet, but as this appears to be a thing of times past he is fortunate to have the broader manliness and warmer yet unexaggerated emotionalism of Jose Carreras. As the father of this cosmopolitan family, Fischer-Dieskau presides movingly and with authority. When he sings we pay attention, and when he announces ''L'enfant prodigue est retourne'' we know that his conduct of events will be wise and humane. The other son does not appear and so what might have been the most touching episode is lost. There is no chorus either, and the finale would be enriched if the voices of servants were added to the family trio. Nevertheless it's a broad, noble melody, somewhat in the syte of Gounod or Saint-Saens but with a refinement unassociated with either of them, just as much else is like Massenet but stronger and more subtle. The orchestral score, luxurious as a rich oriental carpet, is caressed without too much indulgence by Gary Bertini and his players.
The recording is entirely satisfying—until perhaps, we find the chorus in the second work, La damoiselle elue, a fraction too remote, especially in relation to the Narrator. Cotrubas characterizes winningly, a more girlish damoiselle than Elly Ameling in the rival Philips version (the other, on DG, by Hendricks and Barenboim, having an attractive eagerness that distinguishes it from both). At any rate, the ''singular virginal beauty'' of the work is well caught. That phrase comes from Ernest Walker's essay on Debussy in Grove (1927), I looked it up to see what he had to say about L'enfant prodigue: ''It cannot rank as more than a dexterous eclectic exploitation of some of the obvious fashions of the moment.'' Ah!'