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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Into The Woods: A Practical Guide to Pelléas et Mélisande

Mary Garden, the first Mélisande.
This Friday, the Metropolitan Opera presents a long overdue revival of Pélleas et Mélisande, the lone opera by French composer Claude Debussy. Pelléas presents a classic love triangle against a fairy-tale background, set to strange, dream-like music that could only come from Debussy's pen. The work is adapted from the play of the same title, by French Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. Debussy's version focuses on the two main characters and omits scenes for the castle servants. The work combines words and music into a seamless whole where the drama is expertly supported by the orchestra. It sounds like no other opera.

Hunting in the forest, the Prince Golaud (Gerald Finley) discovers Melisande, (Magdalena Kozena) a mysterious girl with long blonde hair. He marries her and brings her home. She immediately falls in love with Golaud's brother, Pelléas (Stéphane Degout) although the "couple" never consummate their relationship. Eventually, Golaud kills Pelléas in a fit of rage. Melisande gives birth to Golaud's child, and dies. The entire work takes place in a shadowy dream-world, the mythical kingdom of "Allemonde" ("All the world") which could be anywhere.

The music for Pelléas uses a unique, shifting tonality, where light and shade dapple through the score, providing support for the almost conversational dialogue. There is one (offstage) chorus. There are no arias or "hit numbers." In fact, there are only two points in the opera's four-hour length where the orchestra is instructed to play forte (loud). Berlin Philharmonic music director Sir Simon Rattle will be making his Metropolitan Opera debut in the pit, conducting this run of performances.

Here's three recommendations:

Royal Opera House of Covent Garden cond. Pierre Boulez
Pelléas: George Shirley
Mélisande: Elisabeth Söderstrom
Golaud: Donald McIntyre

Pierre Boulez brings some needed clarity to this admittedly murky opera. Boulez takes a brisk approach to the score, allowing the orchestra to flex its muscles and bringing out the shimmering textures of Debussy's orchestration. This set remained out of print in North America for about 20 years, and was reissued as part of Sony Opera House, an invaluable series of great reissues from the CBS, Sony Classical and RCA archives.

If you want a studio version of the opera with no background hiss or coughs from the audience, this is the one to get. George Shirley is a solid presence as Pelléas. He is well matched with the great Elisabeth Söderstrom, a fine singing actress. Donald McIntyre, who would later sing Wotan in the Boulez Ring at Bayreuth, is ideal casting as the heart-broken Golaud.

Royal Philharmonic cond. Vittorio Gui
Pelléas: Hans Wilbrink
Mélisande: Denise Duval
Golaud: Michel Roux

This live recording is one of many made by John Barnes, (archivist of the Glyndebourne Festival) that have been released in recent years by Naxos. Recorded in 1963, it sat in the vaults until 2009.

The intimate Glyndebourne opera house is a fine recording venue, and Debussy's work comes to life as a living, breathing work of theater. Conductor Vittorio Gui takes an unconventional, "Italianate" approach to the opera, yet his performance has passion without going into Wagnerian excess. Hans Wilbring is an ardent Pelléas. This recording is worth hearing also for the performance of soprano Denise Duval, who created the role of Blanche in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. One of the great "lost" recordings of the 20th century.


Orchestre symphonique de Paris cond. Roger Désormière
Pelléas: Jacques Jensen
Mélisande: Iréne Joachim
Golaud: Henri Etchiverry

This is an invaluable recording in monaural sound, made during the German occupation of France in 1941. It was a bold move to record this most French of modern operas while the Nazis occupied the city, but the results are simply electric. Désormière's reading of the complete score (the first ever recorded) would set the template for future conductors who wanted to drown Debussy's opera in its own darkness. Yet light shines through, especially in the Well Scene and the opera's gorgeous Interludes.

The EMI remastering cannot hide the fact that this set was recorded in the era of 78s, a decade before commercial opera recording became a viable industry, but that does not lower its value to the listener. The excellent bonuses include three 1904 recordings of Debussy songs featuring Mary Garden (who created the role of Mélisande) and the composer himself at the piano.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.