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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande

Pelléas – Camille Maurane (tenor)
Mélisande – Erna Spoorenberg (soprano)
Golaud – George London (baritone)
Arkel – Guus Hoekman (bass)
Geneviève – Josephine Veasey (mezzo soprano)
Yniold – Rosine Brédy (soprano)
Le Médecin– John Shirley-Quirk (bass-baritone)
Un Berger – Gregore Kubrack (bass)
Choir of the Grand Theatre Geneva
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
Recorded at the Grand Theatre, Geneva, August 1964
DECCA 473351-2 [2 CDs 153.39]

Pelléas et Mélisande has fared variably on record. Whether pushed to the extremity of post-Wagnerian lushness by Karajan in 1988, anatomised with a clinician’s eye by Boulez or conducted with authentic French clarity by Desormière nearly half a century earlier, one can experience some polarised interpretations. Few however have the stature and authority of Ansermet’s two recordings – he never lived to conduct the third he hoped to make - one dating from 1951 and this Decca from 1964. There is a great deal to say – about his astuteness with regard to string weight, his complex understanding of character, his infallible sense of theatrical moment, his acute unfolding of colour in this score – and also, paradoxically, very little to say, so profoundly indivisible is Ansermet’s conducting from Debussy’s textual and visual implications.

Camille Maurane is Pelléas and was middle aged when he came to record the role but you wouldn’t know it; the voice is excellently preserved and employed with discretion and unerring distinction. His Mélisande is Erna Spoorenberg. For Ansermet’s 1951 recording he had Pierre Mollet and Suzanne Danco but though distinguished names they are certainly not superior to Maurane and Spoorenberg – she is exceptionally adept and impressive. The equally strong Golaud is George London who serves notice from his earliest appearance and then mightily at the beginning of Act II Scene II – Ah! Ah! Tout va bien, cela ne sera rien – of the eruptive presence in one’s midst. Guus Hoekman is Arkel and his is an aristocratic assumption without overstepping the bounds of the role – he never forces through the tone and remains sympathetic throughout. There’s an especially impressive performance from Rosine Brédy whose Yniold is truly memorable – aptly youthful with a splendid range. In the subsidiary roles we find two venerable British singers in the earlier days of their careers- John Shirley-Quirk (The Doctor – a tiny role) and Josephine Veasey as Geneviève, maybe not quite as idiomatic as Jeannine Collard (for Cluytens in 1957) but still good.

The orchestra was one of Europe’s more unpredictable ensembles, living up to the lines "When they were good they were good, when they were bad…" Here they are on excellent form; one only has to listen to the way Ansermet encourages some lustrous string tone in the Interlude between Scenes II and III in the First Act to know that they were inspired by the event and were notably well drilled as well. As a result the opera evolves with a pretty perfect balance between technical excellence and expressive refinement. For this of course most of the cachet belongs to Ansermet – though cachet is a cheap word for so fluid and knowledgeable a conductor, whose experience was plain for all to hear. The recording stands the test of time; Decca used some reverberation in the Castle scenes but otherwise the clarity, which is never coldness, is appropriate for this most static and verbal of operas. The booklet prints a synopsis in English, French, German and Italian – but there is no libretto.

Jonathan Woolf

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