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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas at Mélisande (1902)
Lyric drama in five acts and twelve scenes
Libretto: Maurice Maeterlinck
Mélisande: Alison Hagley (soprano)
Pelléas: Neill Archer (tenor)
Golaud: Donald Maxwell (baritone)
King Arkel: Kenneth Cox (bass)
Geneviève: Penelope Walker (mezzo)
Yniold: Samuel Burkey (treble)
Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Pierre Boulez
Directed for the stage and screen by Peter Stein
Recorded at the New Theatre, Cardiff, March 1992
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 073 030-9 [2CDs: 158 minutes]

What a theatrical coup this was for Welsh National Opera. They managed to secure the services of an artistic team that is second to none; a conductor who knows this score probably better than anybody around, and a stage director of thought-provoking intelligence. Indeed, as Peter Stein had proved with his marvellous earlier WNO production of Otello, he manages to get to the emotional core of the drama while getting opera singers (not always noted for their acting subtlety) to perform with real truth and conviction. All this is beautifully demonstrated in this movingly intense production of Debussy’s only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, by any standards one of the most important stage works of the 20th Century.

I have long known this production, having seen the original on stage and having then taped the subsequent television broadcast. It is good to have it on DVD at last, the sharper picture quality and full-bodied sound adding to the enjoyment. It was filmed in the empty theatre, so close-ups, camera angles and microphone placing were all well thought-out and not subject to the problems of a truly ‘live’ production. I always liked the scene linking device for TV, thought up by Boulez, of closing in on the appropriate page of the orchestral score, following for a few seconds and then dissolving into the stage action.

Stein is well known for his meticulous work with the singers, as Boulez is for his care with the score. The result has an effortless fluidity, textual clarity and attention to the smallest detail without losing the bigger picture. Stein and his set designer, Karl-Ernst Herrmann (a colleague from the Schaubühne in Berlin) have ingeniously overcome the many staging hurdles the opera presents, so that scenes flow from one to another without distraction or any loss of crucial atmosphere. Though the production might be described as ‘naturalistic’ (and therefore mercifully free of any post-modern ‘conception’), it has been paired down to the bare essentials to suggest each setting. Thus, the difficult transition from the castle room to the well in the park in Act 4 is achieved without feeling we have really moved – interior and exterior begin to merge as one. This points up the symbolically ‘interior’ nature of the drama, a drama of the night and soul played from within. Lighting is crucial to this, and Jean Kalman creates a background of subtle half-lights, suggestive shafts of colour, and a shadowy gloom that is all pervasive. Against this ‘canvas’, the characters move, act and dress like Pre-Raphaelites come to life – they could be straight out of Burne-Jones or Rossetti.

As for the musical side, Boulez makes sure the Wagnerian web of tone-colours is carefully balanced against Debussy’s revolutionary orchestral refinement, as well as making the most of the hypnotic power of the melodic sung-speech. The orchestra plays superbly for him, and the cast are clearly inspired to give of their best. Alison Hagley makes a suitably girlish Mélisande (not always easy for mature sopranos) and Neill Archer a light and compelling Pelléas. Their moments together have a beautifully balanced naivete that culminates in the famous duet, where Debussy effectively de-Wagnerises himself by having the climactic ‘je t’aime’ sung softly and unaccompanied. The pivotal role of Golaud is sung by veteran Donald Maxwell with a mixture of suppressed violence and bewilderment that entirely convinces. All other supporting parts are well played and sung, a special mention being appropriate for Samuel Burkey, who makes a heart-breaking (though never sentimental) Yniold.

So full marks for the artistic side of the transfer to DVD. Unfortunately, the apparent avarice of DG means that the opera comes on two discs. With a running time of 158 minutes, this is simply not necessary (a recent Il Trovatore, running to 172 minutes with extras, is easily accommodated on one disc). Collectors are being ‘milked’ for a desirable issue, which is unfair. It’s not as if the extras here amount to much – all we get is a promotional trailer for other products, and a ‘picture gallery’ of rehearsal stills. If we could have been given actual footage of Stein and Boulez rehearsing cast and orchestra, that may have been something special. As it is, one feels slightly cheated, especially as the real advantages of the new medium have not been fully exploited.

All in all, one can only conclude that this is a ‘must have’ for lovers of this masterpiece, but buyers can feel rightly aggrieved at having to pay over the odds.

Tony Haywood


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