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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) [161.00]
Rodney Gilfry (baritone) – Pelléas; Isabel Rey (soprano) – Mélisande; Michael Volle (baritone) – Golaud; Lászlo Polgár (bass) – Arkel; Cornelia Kalisch (mezzo) – Gertrude; Eva Liebau (soprano) – Yniold; Guido Götzen (bass) - Doctor, Shepherd
Zurich Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. Zurich Opera House, 2004
Picture Format: 16:9
Disc Format: NTSC
Sound Format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.0 / DTS 5.0
Region: 0
Languages: FR
Subtitle Languages: GB, DE, FR, IT, ES
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107285 [2 DVDs: 161:00]

Pelléas et Mélisande is not only one of the greatest operas of all time, but also one of the greatest works of symbolist literature, in which nothing which happens is exactly what it seems. Any production of the work should therefore suggest rather than portray the action and the mise-en-scène. The best presentation I have ever seen, that by Josef Svoboda at Covent Garden in 1971, did that ideally. The stage pictures looked like an impressionist painting sprung to life, complementing the music and reflecting every minute change in it. The production was recorded in audio for CBS by Pierre Boulez – although the stills in the booklet do not begin to reflect the plastic nature of the transformations in the scenery – but it was never filmed and one regrets that it is now presumably lost for ever. Boulez made a second recording for DVD of the production at Welsh National Opera, which remains available; I will return to this later.
This production by Sven-Eric Bechtoff at least begins from the right premise, that the drama should reflect the emotions and relationships of the characters. From the beginning, hardly anyone ever inter-reacts with anyone else on the stage. Perhaps taking their cue from Pelléas’s words just before his death “You were looking elsewhere” and Mélisande’s enigmatic response “I was seeing you elsewhere,” they talk instead to dummies of other people, and only gradually do they begin to realise their connectedness with their fellows. The three principals only come together at the end of the Fourth Act, when Golaud kills Pelléas – although he doesn’t do that here, merely embracing the two lovers as they finally realise their destinies.
But the scenery even in this psychological context is all too realistic, and it is the wrong sort of prosaic realism. Pelléas and Mélisande seem to hold their clandestine meetings in a broken-down car; Yniold has supposedly to be lifted up by his father in order to spy on them (and the symbolism of that is clear), but here he simply peers through the windscreen. In the vaults Golaud shows Pelléas a stinking pit into which he nearly allows the latter to slip, and again the symbolism is subtly obvious. Not here: Golaud displays to Pelléas a vision of the latter in a gas chamber and threatens him with what looks suspiciously like a light sabre that has strayed out of Star Wars – and the whole point is so blatant that one wonders why Pelléas would ever trust his half-brother within a mile of him again. Rolf Glittenberg’s sets are flexible and not too obtrusive, but one notices yet again in modern opera productions the lack of any sense of the beauty of the natural world – which is so clearly reflected in Debussy’s music.
Which is a great pity, because the musical performance itself is marvellous. We get the score complete, of course (including the revised and extended orchestral interludes), except from the small cut in the Golaud-Yniold scene where ‘the bed’ is mentioned, a snip which was made by Debussy himself at the insistence of the censors; Boulez included it in his Welsh performances. The singers are expressive, beautifully sympathetic and treasure every word of Maeterlinck’s superbly simple text. One fears the worst when the booklet claims that Franz Welser-Möst “takes his cue” from a production that is “a coolly concentrated artistic exercise.” But one’s fears prove to be ungrounded; this is a beautifully sympathetic performance, clear yet not afraid to be romantic when the music demands it. The only point where Welser-Möst falls short is in the great interlude in Act Four, when greater emotional involvement is really needed to bring out the heart-rending warmth of the score.
The singing of Michael Volle as Golaud is excellent, and he maintains a real engagement with the words even when the dramatic situation as presented onstage militates against it. Similarly Lászlo Polgár is an excellent old King, properly full-voiced and thoroughly sympathetic. Against them Isabel Rey makes an unusually positive Mélisande, not the naïve waif we sometimes encounter but a real driving force in the action. Cornelia Kalisch is a warm-voiced Gertrude, and it is a pity she does not wait around for her curtain call at the end. On the other hand Guido Götzen is rather a cipher as the Doctor in the final Act; more can be made of the role than this.
The only slight reservation regarding the singers comes with Rodney Gilfry. Debussy specified the role of Pelléas for a tenor, but the part lies easily within the range of a high baritone – the French bariton-martin – and it has been the custom for many years to assign the role to a baritone. Boulez however in both his recordings insisted on a tenor, and I think he was right. Although much of the part lies uncomfortably low for the tenor voice, it enables the singer to deliver the text in a parlando style which suits the understatement of the words; and at the other end of the scale, the points where the vocal line blossoms out feel more genuinely emotional with a tenor warmly expanding in the upper part of the voice than with a baritone at the very top of his register. However the bariton-martin tradition is a long and honourable one, and Gilfry fits proudly into that category with only a very occasional sense of strain.
The other voice which is sometimes altered is that of the child Yniold. Debussy wrote the part for an adult soprano, but that can lead to problems when the child has to be lifted onto the shoulders of Golaud for example. Boulez therefore in both his recordings used a boy treble. This is a case where I think he was definitely wrong, because the orchestral writing which underlies the part of Yniold is quite simply too overpowering for a treble voice. Samuel Burkey in the WNO video comes through all right, but one suspects assistance from the microphones (the DVD was filmed on the stage but in studio conditions without an audience present). No, the best solution is as here, the use of a soprano with a child-like voice – especially when the ‘boy’ doesn’t have to climb onto his father’s shoulders.
This is, then, a superb performance of the opera as music, even when the dramatic precision of the staging is at odds with Debussy’s score and Maeterlinck’s words. But for a real dramatic experience it must give way to Boulez’s Welsh National Opera DVD – even while one regrets the loss of his older Covent Garden production. Peter Stein’s direction cleaves more closely to the drama as envisioned by its creators, and although some of the designs are regrettably workmanlike they don’t obtrude in the way that those here often do. But Volle and Polgár in particular might turn the balance with some listeners. Neither the DG set nor this Arthaus DVD contain any extras, which is a pity.
Paul Corfield Godfrey