Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

Author: 
Lionel Salter

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

  • Pelléas et Mélisande

At first sight it might seem that the scales were heavily weighted against this new recording of Debussy's hauntingly atmospheric opera: ranged against it in the current lists are historic issues conducted by two eminent Debusssy interpreters—Desormiere (EMI) and Inghelbrecht (Disques Montaigne/Harmonia Mundi)—and a fairly recent one under the most famous of today's conductors, Karajan (also EMI). But a coldly objective critical appraisal reveals some drawbacks in all of these, despite their very considerable merits. The Desormiere set (with a splendid cast except for a less than exact Arkel) is only in mono Inghelbrecht's well-nigh perfect cast is occasionally swamped by the orchestra, and (this being a public performance) there are some slips and quite a little audience noise; Karajan's Wagnerian reading, for all its voluptuous orchestral sound and the outstanding Melisande of von Stade, still strikes me as feverishly overwrought for a work where the composer asked that ''la musique doit etre discrete''; it also has a not entirely accurate Arkel, and casts a misty veil over the singers which impedes the clarity of their articulation.
However, altogether apart from such imperfections, the new issue on its own account makes very positive claims on our attention. John Carewe, a conductor hitherto little heard on records (and then only in contemporary, or near-contemporary works), handles the score in most sensitive and idiomatic fashion part of his training, in fact, had been in Paris—and secures eloquent playing from the Nice orchestra which, if it does not match the velvet of Karajan's Berliners (what could?), is of impressively superior quality. The recording, while avoiding the extreme dynamic range which characterizes the Karajan version, presents a very true and warm orchestral sound without allowing it to overwhelm the singers, and almost every word of the text that Debussy treated with such finesse comes through clearly. The performance derives from the stage production (conducted by Carewe) at the Nice Opera in 1987, and there is a well-oiled feel about most of it that underlines the advantages of such a preparation.
Central to the success of this issue is the Golaud of Vincent Le Texier, a young artist of whom I hope to hear much more: alive to every verbal inflexion, he admirably depicts the varying moods, from tender benevolence to suppressed tension harshness and insane jealousy, of the selftormenting character. Peter Meven makes an appropriately mature-sounding but steady-voiced Arkel (quite the most accurate available reading of this part), and there is a truly astonishing performance by a treble (whose name should, in justice, have been divulged) as Yniold: real children in operas are often faintly embarrassing, or even downright unsatisfactory, but this lad has a good voice and a totally secure production, is dead in tune and sings in impeccable French. It is when we come to the two title roles that reservations start to creep in. Eliane Manchet has sung Melisande at La Scala and elsewhere in Italy as well as in Vienna and Munich, and on the stage she probably makes an appealingly fragile timorous heroine: to the ear alone her timbre seems, in the early part of the work, self-consciously childlike, so bright and trenchant as to be almost soubrettte-ish—the tone in which she says ''Il fait sombre dans les jardins'', for example, is quite at variance with the sense of the words. She sounds more committed in the latter half of the opera, and the same is true of her American Pelleas, Malcolm Walker. One's first impression of him is of an unromantic, somewhat grainy voice with little verbal nuance and wooden rhythm—too often he seems to be beating time with his voice. Only in the love scene (from ''On dirait que ta voix'') does warmth colour his tone.
From an economic point of view this issue has the advantage of being the sole Pelleas on only two discs, but the change-over point has obviously been dictated not by musical considerations but simply by dividing the running-time by two, and the result is distinctly jarring. Economy may perhaps also have been the reason for the abysmally poor English translation of the booklet notes: a pity that Carewe should be saddled with this unworthy presentation.'

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