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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande - Lyric drama in five acts and twelve scenes (1902)
Libretto: Maurice Maeterlinck
Mélisande: Christine Oelze (soprano)
Pelléas: Richard Croft (tenor)
Golaud: John Tomlinson (baritone)
King Arkel: Gwynne Howell (bass)
Geneviève: Jean Rigby (mezzo)
Yniold: Jake Arditti (treble)
Chorus of Glyndebourne Opera
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Directed for the stage by Graham Vick
Directed for video by Humphrey Burton
rec. Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 1999
NVC ARTS 504678326-2 [163:00]

Debussy's sole and inspired operatic masterpiece has done very well on CD, and is showing signs of being equally lucky on DVD. My benchmark is undoubtedly the 1992 Welsh National Opera production, conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed with an astonishing blend of naturalistic modernity yet total fidelity to the composer's instructions by Peter Stein. It was released by DG a couple of years ago and closely followed by another highly intelligent staging from Lyons Opera, a very different offering conducted with thought-provoking clarity by John Eliot Gardiner. Now we have the 1999 Glyndebourne version, a production which squarely divided the critics but had a very successful run, followed by a long revival tour in 2004.

I have tended to stand by the Stein/Boulez collaboration, impressively transferred to DVD and sounding extremely fine. Graham Vick's production for Glyndebourne could hardly be more different; I can see why reviewers were divided and though the musical qualities are never in doubt, the visual concept might not be to everyone's taste.

Vick and his designer, Paul Brown, have chosen to set the action not in some mythical past but basically around the time of the opera's premiere. Thus we have a huge, cluttered Edwardian drawing room, decked out with all manner of gilt-edged furniture and pictureless hanging frames. Dominating everything is a vast, spiral staircase which disappears up into the shadows and becomes the focal point for much of the action. The clever perspex flooring allows all manner of mirror effects and underfloor lighting tricks to be played, including at one point the illumination of a sea of coloured flowers.

Opting for one composite set, where the odd chair is shifted to denote a scene change, rather than trying to give us Debussy's many different locales, is Vick's biggest gamble. He has to play most of the opera out as if it's all memory, rather as in the Lyon production. So we don't see Golaud out lost in the dense forest where he discovers Mélisande by a pool, as we do for WNO, but instead the curtain goes up on John Tomlinson sat in a wing armchair seemingly recounting events, finally 'discovering' Mélisande curled naked under a blanket on the table. Similarly, Golaud cannot lead Pelléas down into the castle's dungeon vaults in blackness, so instead the two sit on the staircase side by side and play the scene out there, albeit with a lighting change. It's these restrictions that are my biggest concern, though most of the ordinary interior scenes come off OK. We certainly get a sense of Mélisande's claustrophobia, but when Golaud admits that 'this castle is indeed cold and damp, vast and dark' when we are actually in a comfortable, well-upholstered room, there is a sense that some of Vick's anachronisms sit rather uncomfortably. The worst offenders are two of the opera's most famous moments, the 'hair' scene (Act 3, sc.1) and the insanely jealous Golaud holding a frightened Yniold up to Mélisande's window to spy on the couple. Or at least that's what's supposed to happen. Here, Golaud has to do the opposite and hold Yniold down to look through a hole in the floor. In the other scene, the 'Romeo and Juliet'-style balcony magic is replaced by Mélisande appearing from the inside of a giant suspended chandelier, rather like a pantomime and much to the audible amusement of the audience.

There are moments like this throughout, but once you get inside Vick's concept, you can see what he's aiming at. After all, this is a psycho-drama, a memory opera, and the sight of this dysfunctional family passing each other like ghosts in the night does get to the emotional core of the work. But too many key moments, like those above, have to go without the full symbolic weight that was intended, and is indeed achieved in other productions.

On a musical front, things are much better. Indeed, I have to say one cannot get much better singing or playing in this piece. John Tomlinson may bark a bit too much in places, but he is in superb voice and makes a frighteningly violent Golaud, more brutish than WNO's Donald Maxwell but less subtle in places. Christine Oelze oozes vulnerability and plays beautifully off the light-voiced Pelléas of Richard Croft, who is uncannily similar to WNO's Neil Archer. The rest of the stalwart British cast are excellent, particularly Gwynne Howell's noble old Arkel.

The playing of the LPO is gloriously full and romantic, as befits Andrew Davis's Karajan-like conducting, and this perfectly viable Wagnerian approach, which points up the leitmotifs more than any I've heard, makes a good contrast to the cool, diaphanous clarity of Boulez and Gardiner. It really is a joy to listen to the orchestral contribution, an aspect some critics still feel is the most important element in the opera. Audio quality is also marginally fuller than the Boulez, with the balance slightly favouring the pit.

The packaging is a little shabby, with no booklet and only a scant synopsis and chapter headings, which we have to read through the plastic outer casing. This is really not good enough, but there is compensation in the whole 163 minutes being on one disc. This is easier on the wallet and means the piece can properly be viewed straight through, rather than with the annoying break onto a second disc for Act 5, as with the DG. This is the single worst thing about the WNO set, which in every other way is exemplary. If you saw the Glyndebourne Pélleas, you will know whether this is the one for you, but if not, I still urge lovers of the work to try the DG set, as it resonates far longer in the mind and is a faithful record of a truly classic production.

Tony Haywood

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