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DVD Review
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande
(Music drama in five acts and thirteen scenes)
Libretto by Maurice Maeterlink after his play
Chorus and Orchestra of the Lyon Opera conducted by John Eliot Gardiner
ARTHAUS DVD 100 100 Subtitles in English and German [147 mins]

Mélisande ……………………Colette Alliot-Lugaz

Pelléas……………………….. François Le Roux

Golaud……………………… José Van Dam

Arkel……………………… .Roger Soyer

Geneviève……………………Jocelyne Taillon

Yniold………………………. Françoise Golfier

One quickly comes to recognise a too-rigid formula in the presentation of Arthaus DVD videos. The booklet notes follow a pattern. First comes a note about the composer that always begins with his date and place of birth and ends with the date and place of his death. Then comes a historical note about the opera's development and first performance(s) followed by an act-by-act synopsis of the drama and biographical notes about the conductor and the leading artists.

I mention all this because this tendency towards inflexibility works against this particular production. The drama's synopsis is a literal description of Maeterlinck's story, as transposed to the opera, set in a medieval, legendary time. Now, given that it is heavy with symbolism, that much is left to the imagination, much is intangible, enigmatic and dream-like - perhaps, even nightmarish, the booklet notes do not make any attempt to explain the producer's concept. For this Pelléas is in modern dress. The set is very simplistic: a vast open chequered floor dominating, with a few props - an armchair, a wicker chair and a table - little else. To the right there is a line of columns, decorated near their base so that one might (just) imagine tree trunks for the first act forest setting. Doors open at various times to let in the sun or moonlight.

So without any such guidance one has to make a leap of the imagination - up another level. In Act I, for instance, the set I have described remains unaltered. You see no spring and no Mélisande beside it - you just hear her voice. At the end a figure appears (he turns out to be the servant in the succeeding acts) who leads a disquieted Golaud away. You wonder; is Golaud imagining it all? Has he gone mad? Is the producer intending us to think that there is a loop in time and that Golaud is 'seeing' all this after the tragedy of Pelléas and Mélisande's death?

Again, in Act III, for instance, one wonders about the producer's idea of the sanity of Yniold. The servant/shepherd looks askance at the little boy as he expresses concern for the lost (?) sheep as he reads from a book (in Maeterlinck's story, and presumably in the original stage production, he is out in the open and actually seeing the sheep although Maeterlinck's symbolism is clear enough. Again, more prosaically, there are other smaller irritations. On a number of occasions, for instance, the libretto makes reference to Golaud's beard - yet José van Dam is clean-shaven.

I found all this disconcerting, distracting and intruding upon the enjoyment of the music, for this is a good performance. Van Dam's Golaud is the highlight - he is a powerfully persuasive, anguished and tormented by his doubts and jealousy. Colette Alliot-Lugaz is a fine Mélisande. She has that far-way, fragile and innocent beauty so essential to the part. Her Act III duet with Pelléas as she leans out of the castle window so that Pelléas can caress her hair (not so in this production they merely sit/lie together) is most beautifully sung. François Le Roux is equally convincing, finely and plaintively expressive as the young and innocent (?) Pelléas.

Of all operas, surely Pelléas et Mélisande is ideally served by the gramophone? The listener can let their imagination run free, free of the distractions of too-clever-by-far productions such as these. I would draw readers attention to Karajan's fine 1979 recording reissued by EMI in 1999 in their Great Recordings of the century series (EMI 5 67057 2). A review of this set appears in our November 1999 reviews pages.

Ian Lace

Peter Woolf adds:

This is a very peculiar first DVD production of Pelléas et Mélisande. Pierre Strosser takes responsibility for the set designs and stage direction, and Patrice Cauchetier for the modern dress. As commonly with Arthaus DVDs (and some opera house programmes too) there is no discussion of what lies behind the production, which is far from self-evident. It seems to be (possibly) filmed on the stage of the Opera National de Lyon, but there is neither audience nor orchestra in sight - so maybe it was all taken to a TV studio? If it is dubbed, that is done well.

Visually it is a disaster, though pretty to look at, especially in close-ups, sometimes. The indoor setting (no cave or pond, naturally) and the gestures imposed on the protagonists negate the crucial specifics of the text at every turn, that being emphasised by the detailed subtitles. We never see what we read is happening. People avoid looking at each other in scenes of love or conflict. If it makes you think, as presumably is the aim, all that you can come up with tends to be trite and trivial. It is not that one cannot live with less than literal productions of opera, given a powerful directorial imagination (see the S&H review of Pelléasand Mélisande at ENO).

But the paradox is that musically it is a splendid performance, and the acting too (especially in the poignant and harrowing confrontations) is excellent, provided you can (from time to time) ignore the irrelevant and contradictory stage on which they all have to perform all the time, with little help from lighting or camera.

Ian Lace, with whom I am totally in agreement, found Golaud the central character; he usually steals the show from the young couple and perhaps his name should be that of the opera? The grandfather and mother of the tragic brothers are well taken, and Mélisande is delightful in her remote, frail vulnerability. John Eliot Gardiner conducts an urgent, dramatic account of the imperishable score and the balances are good. One is tempted to switch the vision off but this is impossible; one is drawn back to the body language and expressive acting, within its prescribed confinement, and to follow the extraordinary Maeterlink text, savouring the French, whilst following in English phrase by phrase. It is a divisive, schizoid experience, and cannot possibly be recommended as a first choice.

Le Roux has become well known in UK in opera (Birtwistle's Gawain) and recital; Alliot-Lugaz less so. I believe I wrote some of the first reviews of Le Roux and his regular pianist Jeff Cohen in a series of CDs for REM Editions of Lyon, and hailed his arrival as a successor to Gerard Souzay. Try to hear the three of them together in Mélodies françaises en duo, a thoroughly enjoyable and happy selection of Fauré, Duparc, Massenet, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Gounod, Lalo, Satie, Poulenc, Chausson & Bizet REM 311086 (1989).

Peter Grahame Woolf

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