> Debussy Pelleas Haitink [CF]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Pelleas et Melisande
Sung in French
Poem by Maurice Maeterlinck
Mélisande Anne Sofie von Otter (soprano)
Pelléas Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)
Golaud Laurent Naouri (baritone)
Geneviève Hanna Schaer (mezzo soprano)
Arkel Alain Vernhes (bass)
Yniold Florence Couderc (soprano)
A shepherd/A doctor Jérôme Varnier (baritone)
Chorus of Radio France
Orchestre Nationale de France
Bernard Haitink (conductor)
Recorded live in concert at the Theatre de Champs Elysee on March 14th & 16th 2001
NAÏVE V 4923 [3 CDs 161’ 14"]


Curiously Debussy once said that ‘music begins where words are powerless, music is made for the inexpressible’. To find a poet for whom he could write music he needed one who had left space for music to be grafted on, something which in effect was only semi-complete and awaiting the addition of music. In this he lighted upon an exact contemporary of his, Maurice Maeterlinck, as his collaborator. The opera was completed in first draft in 1895, orchestrated in 1901 when Debussy had received assurances from the Opéra Comique that it would be staged, and a cast selected at the head of which was the Scottish soprano Mary Garden - ‘you would have to be stone deaf to resist the charms of her voice’, said the composer. Debussy’s translucent score and Messager’s meticulously balanced conducting allowed Maeterlinck’s libretto to be heard, and in parts whipped up a scandal only Parisians can arouse. In the musical fraternity there was an obvious schism, followers of Massenet (who left a rehearsal astounded) protested, while the likes of D’Indy, Koechlin, Dukas and Pierné were admirers.

Haitink is nothing but refined in his conducting of this magnificent score, and has a wonderful cast before him headed by the incomparable Anne Sofie von Otter, and an orchestra steeped in the style. The textures are iridescent, the homogeneity of the string textures radiant, the interpretation searingly poetic, as a colourist he is supreme (such as the hints of the storm at the end of the first act, and the impressionist-like watery textures of the fountain beginning the second). The two ill-fated lovers, von Otter and the fine Holzmair as Pelléas, electrify the tension in this scene in which her ring is predictably lost as she tosses it foolishly into the air, and together they build an erotic sensuality at any mention of her hair, hanging in long golden tresses, and which play such a vital part in the climactic love scene in the fourth act as she lowers them from the castle window. Despite outward appearances there is in this opera an enormous amount of symbolism, to which Debussy’s impressionistic harmony and scoring is ideally suited, her plaited hair, a cave, a well, the sea, the ring and so on. Wagner’s post-Tristan harmony and the leitmotif principle are subliminal, if not acknowledged influences, such as the Parsifal-like enigma and innocence of Pelléas, and even more, of Mélisande; who is she, where did she come from, what was it that happened to her before Golaud discovered her in the forest and to which she can never allude or illuminate?

As the jealous husband and short-tempered brother, Laurent Naouri’s portrayal of Golaud is vivid, for the voice has a richly dramatic sound, whilst Alain Vernhes (like Timur in Puccini’s Turandot) brings dignity and sadness to the role of the blind Arkel. This is a magical recording of a magical score.

Christopher Fifield


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