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DEBUSSY’s

PELLÉAS et MÉLISANDE

A Recording Overview



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The Arkiv list for audio recordings and DVD films of Pelléas et Mélisande available for purchase stretches to nineteen performances. The word ‘overview’ ideally suggests that every single extant version of a recording should be covered in the contents; alas, this reviewer lacks the financial resources and the scholarly facilities of a good music school or public library at hand to do the job thoroughly and I have had to rely upon the commentary of others in some cases. Pelléas et Mélisande has been fortunate on record and the buyer can safely assume that a recording containing one or more favorite performers or conductor will be satisfying. I have noted a few caveats in the case of the occasional idiosyncracy.

Pelléas et Mélisande does not contain arias, ensembles, choruses or lavish set-pieces of any kind. The characters, with the exception of Golaud and Pelléas, have relatively little to say and, aside from the occasional outburst of violent jealousy from Golaud and impassioned romanticism from Pelléas, these creatures comment quietly and without operatic refulgence.

To save those of you who dislike long discourses I will start by recommending four outstanding recordings, taking into account one’s experience with this elusive opera and predispositions to certain conductors and the quality of the recorded sound.

If you are coming new to Pelléas et Mélisande you will probably have the most success in learning to love this beautiful work by acquiring a newer set with the most up-to-date sound. To my knowledge no recording of this opera has yet to be released with Super Audio CD technology so the best you can get is the next-to-latest technology.

I won’t belabor the history of the gestation and birth of this mighty masterpiece or reiterate musicological information that is covered in most of the cd booklets available with the recordings. Suffice it to say that, like Tristan und Isolde and Le sacre du printemps, Debussy’s mid-career sensation altered the face of composition permanently.

Claudio Abbado’s 1991 recording [DG 435433] with the Vienna Philharmonic is probably the best all-round recommendation, though if you are interested in the great wizard of the podium, Herbert von Karajan, and suspect you might be a nascent Herbophile, then you would be well-advised to pick up his recording from 1978 which has been re-released by EMI on their ‘Great Performances’ [EMI 45782] label. I believe those releases contain complete libretti, but if not they surely will have a plot synopsis and an essay on Debussy’s adaptation of Maeterlinck’s play. Karajan’s EMI set is still on three CDs, as opposed to two as with most other recordings of this opera, making it more expensive than Abbado’s newer recording on DG which tips the scale in Abbado’s favor if you only want one recording.

Pelléas et Mélisande can be followed without reading every word of the text, though you will miss some beautiful and evocative lines. If you want to save money on this opera until you are certain it is "for you" then go for the excellent Jean-Claude Casadesus in a very good recording from Lille from 1996 [Naxos 8.660047-9]. There is no English translation of the text but a full synopsis. Mireille Delunsch and Gérard Thereul lead an excellent all-French cast.

By general consensus the "greatest recording of all" is the 1941 set made in Paris and conducted by Roger Désormière based on performances at the Opéra Comique but recorded in the National Conservatory of Music. The sound is a bit primitive but perfectly acceptable, the voices are up-front and clear, the singers’ diction remarkably understandable, and the orchestra, though not as clear in detail as later recordings, is very much a visceral presence and not simply lost in haze as is so often the case in pre-1950s recordings. There have been several incarnations of this performance. Currently it is out on EMI’s ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series [EMI 45782] released in 2006, as well as the now-defunct, but still available, Andante label [Andante 3990] released in 2002. If you can snap up one of the latter do so as it is well worth the extra money for the splendid essays and packaging and sound quality. This Andante release has the added features, on a fourth disc, of three groups of excerpts from rare Parisian recordings, conducted by Georges Truc from 1928 with Alfred Maguenat, Marthe Nsepoulos and Hector Dufranne; Piero Coppola from 1927 with Charles Panzéra, Yvonne Brothier and Vanni-Marcoux; and finally a brief bit featuring the Geneviève of the young Germaine Cernay, conducted by Gustave Cloez from 1928. The sound of these three excerpts is primitive but they are extremely evocative of a lost time and place and an invaluable aural history of a lost performance tradition.

Andante has not eliminated all the "whoosh" in the sound in order that they maintain the integrity of the instrumental nuances (I have not heard the EMI release), but you will not encounter the rhythmic scratching that can drive one mad in some original vinyl sources or transferred wax cylinders and the like. With Andante’s version any extraneous recording flaws vanish like the mist as the magic of the performance takes hold. Désormière’s choice of a very slow tempo allows the phrase within a longer phrase to stand out in the opening motif. This performance grips from start to finish and the occasional periods of somnolence and boredom that can occur in lesser hands are nowhere in evidence.

These four sets can confidently be recommended to anyone who is interested in adding to their collection of Pelléas recordings or coming to it brand new - with tolerance for the limited acoustic in the Désormière set.

I happen to agree that Désormière’s recording is indeed the great milestone in recordings of Pelléas et Mélisande and, aside from advances in sound quality, has yet to be equalled, let alone surpassed, by subsequent sets. He and his cast and recording team had three advantages in their favor; the first being the dreadful disadvantage of the Nazi occupation of Paris at the time this recording was made, an event of such dire magnitude that seems to have concentrated the human mind on the task at hand in order to escape the ghastly realities going on outside. Like Marcel Carné’s classic film Les enfants du paradis, also made during the Nazi occupation, there is an underlying reaffirmation of the human spirit to be free and joyous even in the face of terror and uncertainty. Secondly, there was little previous recorded history at that time and therefore the performers were almost completely reliant upon a way of singing and enunciating words that was passed down from generation to generation since the premiere of Pelléas in 1902. Thirdly, the age of the international singing circus was still in its formative years, and occupied Paris prevented all but local singers from participating in this recording. These influences plus the traditional French manner of performance combined to create a unique aural environment that is now extinct in the homogenized international opera houses. The Désormière set is a vivid document from a dear, dead world that will never happen again and is the more poignant and moving for that.

Désormière had a cast born to sing their parts. The baritone Jacques Jansen (Pelléas) was in his prime in 1941, he later went on to record this role with André Cluytens in 1956, a set now available again on the Testament label [3051] which I have not heard; an expensive set featuring Victoria de los Angeles’ famous Mélisande, so if she happens to be one of your pets you would probably be pleased with this release. And Cluytens was a very fine, much under-appreciated conductor. Jansen’s 1941 performance finds him in youthful, vigorous voice and full of beans and ardently expresses Pelléas’s romantic notions about life and ideal love. Jansen’s baritone rings out freely in the high tessitura and never sounds strained. Often this role is taken by a tenor, as in both Boulez’s recordings. I have enjoyed performances by both voice types but marginally prefer a bariton-martin, a light-ish, high baritone ideal for this role, which is what Debussy had in mind originally in this part.

The only real advantage to my way of thinking in having a tenor Pelléas is in the wonderful soaring line in Act IV, "je t’ai trouvée... Je l’ai trouvée..." ("I have found you, Found it in you", ‘It’ in this instance signifying Beauty). A tenor like George Shirley, splendid in Boulez’s first recording on CBS (now Sony), can let fly ecstatically, as these highest notes in the role are only F# and G#, a stretch for a baritone but easy pickings for a lyric tenor. It has to be said that a baritone reaching his upper limits for these notes can be very exciting if the voice stays true and doesn’t fray; this line becomes an erotic breaking point for a baritone Pelléas whereas for a tenor Pelléas it is a swooping exultation. Of all the recordings I’ve heard Jansens’ comes closest to combining the erotic breaking point with the swooping exultation, but he is slightly let down from ultimate lift-off by Désormière’s uncharacteristic, slightly perfunctory quick-step through this bit, not allowing for the ecstasy to hit home. A missed opportunity for aural orgasm if you ask me and the only blemish on his otherwise inspired conducting. I have noticed that some conductors of this work shy away from over-emoting of the climaxes. Dutoit is especially guilty of surgically removing these opportunities for frisson that I think Debussy intended to provide for the listener. Coma can, and does, set in if the musical temperature remains too consistently moderate for too long.

Next to Jansen’s Pelléas Richard Stilwell (Karajan) gives a very good performance, his French is quite good enough, no complaints. Stilwell’s voice has a slightly raspy trim at the edge which enhances the hint of hysteria in his more excitable moments, as well as making his Pelléas an adolescent, recently infatuated with his "dying" friend Marcellus - shades of Brideshead Revisited. Stilwell’s is the sexiest Pelléas I’ve heard, very masculine sounding, making his brotherly relationship to the rough Golaud more plausible. One can almost sense the incipient cruelty in Pelléas’s nature that is found in Golaud’s more experienced and damaged persona.

François LeRoux, Abbado’s high-strung and excitable Pelléas, lies somewhere between these other two baritones. His voice is lighter, in the French style, than Stilwell’s but not as light on top as Jansen’s. His Act IV pre-death exultation is sung with ease and he has the advantage of Abbado’s superb leadership, giving the second-best rendition of that scene; the best, surprisingly, being Pierre Boulez’s in the 1969 set - no longer available - with George Shirley. His build-up to the climax here is cathartic and unequalled, so far, in other recordings. This is surprising in that Boulez is commonly considered a clinical and dry-eyed conductor. Not so in Act IV of Pelléas et Mélisande. It’s too bad the CBS recording is so dry and boxy, but even that cannot diminish the impact of this scene. George Shirley’s is the most satisfying tenor performance on record. LeRoux almost achieves the same level of exaltation but cannot equal the freedom of a tenor in this high-lying phrase.

Other tenors who I’ve heard sing this role are Eric Tappy on a fine Erato set with Armin Jordan conducting. There’s also a touchingly young and nicely acted performance of Neill Archer with Pierre Boulez in Cardiff in a lovely, semi-abstract Peter Stein filmed production from 1992 and released in 2002 [DG 073030 DVD]. That almost merits a "rosette" - to borrow a term from The Penguins - for films of this opera, if it weren’t for the risible fake baby with moveable arms in Act V! The devil is in the detail, in this case, the beastly baby.

Of the other Pelléas singers, none of them are bad. Didier Henry does a good job for Charles Dutoit in an otherwise dry as dust recording, the only set that left me unmoved at the end of Act V. Some people like Dutoit’s cerebral conducting, and the Montréal Symphony plays very well and his cast is good, but for me Dutoit really is completely analytical and free of poetic nuance in this 1990 Decca recording. This set is no longer available on Decca but available on an Arkiv CD (no catalogue number) from their website [www.Arkivmusic.com]. It is fully authorized by Decca and sports the original cover art but contains no liner notes at all.

Bernard Haitink’s live recording from Paris with the ORTF [Naïve 4923] released in 2003 is an unknown quantity to me. I have read a variety of commentary on it and the verdict is "mixed". Overall I have the impression that his singers, Wolfgang Holzmair and Laurent Naouri especially, are quite good, Anne Sofie von Otter less so, and there was a strong current against Haitink’s lethargic conducting which is a pity as he is a famous Debussyian from his Concertgebouw days. Also, this set is on three CDs and costs a fair bit more than the superb Abbado which is hands-down a first choice among modern sets.

As for the Mélisandes I have heard I am partial to Maria Ewing for Abbado. She is the most seductive and mysterious of them all, in my experience, and conveys the slightly poisonous character of this abused woman with disturbing intensity. In her death scene Golaud admonishes her heartlessly to tell him the truth about her relationship with Pelléas. She replies enigmatically "La vérité ... La .. vérité ...." as if she doesn’t understand the question or isn’t familiar with hard and tried Truths. Ewing’s Mélisande does not madden one with frustration at her obtuseness, she is simply not of this world and we accept that. Mélisande is a fascinating creature, as cuckoo as Senta, Elsa, Isolde, Kundry and Emilia Marty and twice as weird, but somehow evoking nothing but pity and affection.

Irène Joachim’s portrayal for Désormière has the stamp of vintage authenticity about it, as does the recording as a whole. She is more sparky than Ewing, becoming childishly playful, though not twee, whilst tossing her wedding ring up and down until it disappears down the well. Hers is similar to Frederica von Stade for Karajan, yet Joachim can suddenly plunge into melancholy with the flick of a word. When she reiterates to Arkel for the third time in the opera "Je ne suis pas heureuse" ("I am not happy") she is living that unhappiness vocally; it’s really a bit uncanny how she acts so vividly with the tiniest inflections of tone. Normally if someone said "I am unhappy" to me more than once I would lose patience with the "victim" but with Joachim’s Mélisande you sense that she isn’t interested in manipulating Arkel’s sympathy, she’s simply stating the one truth she is familiar with and it touches a compassionate nerve in the listener. Joachim’s delivery of these simple lines places her in a special pantheon of Mélisandes that few achieve. Of the modern Mélisandes I’ve heard Ewing comes the closest to Joachim’s sovereign expression of the text, though Rachel Yakar is no slouch in this regard. Unfortunately her performance for Armin Jordan on Erato is no longer available.

Frederica Von Stade (Karajan) is spunkier than most others who have recorded this role. She finds the sadness as well but she is of a tougher grain than most. Her delivery of her opening lines ‘Ne me touchez pas ... ne me touchez pas!’ ('Don't TOUCH me!') has a steely strength to it, like a warning, where other singers usually shrink in fear in the face of Golaud’s aggressive masculinity. Beautifully sung throughout, von Stade’s death scene is extremely touching, as of a great life force departing, adding special power to Arkel’s wonderful line "Il ne faut plus l’inquiéter ... L’âme humaine est très silencieuse ... L’âme humaine à s’en aller seulle" ("We must disturb her no more ... For the soul is a creature of silence ... And would fain alone take its departure"). It is at this point that one can lose self-control. It is best to listen to this act by yourself lest you disgrace yourself with emotional excess before a witness.

Boulez’s filmed performance features the bewitching Mélisande of Alison Hagley. With her mysterious, sly smile and sexually provocative allure she embodies this woman-child with a dangerous undertow, like one of Ulysses’ sirens. She would appear consciously to bring doom to all who fall in love with her. Hagley’s is also one of the most gorgeously sung, and beautiful looking, Mélisandes, and she and Neill Archer’s appealingly young Pelléas are, in themselves, good reason to acquire this set. Peter Stein’s production is uncluttered and suggests ancient times with sets that suggest location rather than literally filling the stage with scenery; it all works very nicely, that mechanical baby notwithstanding. Hagley’s death scene is deeply affecting.

Only the Dutoit recording has failed to move me in the last scene, it’s that shard of glass in the heart of this performance; the French ideal of l’indifférence taken to an extreme. Désormière’s recording has a touch of clear-eyed astringency but he does not jettison the human factor as Dutoit does. All other recorded performances succeed in touching the heart, some reach a level of emotional intensity as to stand well above the pack. Abbado and Karajan take the lead in this regard. You may have read somewhere before that Karajan’s is a "Wagnerian" performance. I’m never quite certain as to what that means, though you will not find a trace of astringency in his conducting, it’s all flesh and blood and mysticism, Parsifalian, which is probably why his is called a ‘Wagnerian’ performance. Karajan’s approach is very lush and often wildly ecstatic, sometimes to the point of drowning his singers in a great wave of sound, but it works and is never bombastic. The Berlin Philharmonic sweeps the board for tonal beauty; they are quite breath-taking throughout and that alone is reason enough to have this set in your collection. After four acts of Karajan’s alternating storminess and dreaminess the sudden airless calm of the final scene transfers the listener to another atmosphere altogether and the effect is devastating. The heaviness of Ruggero Raimondi’s Arkel, a very gloomy chap, depressed in fact, gives the final words of the opera a tincture redolent of the tomb and reminiscent of Titurel’s dark sayings in Parsifal. The tolling bells and harps that follow his sepulchre lines are all the more moving by contrast. He’s quite good in his way and not at all a blot on the set as other writers have found him to be.

And Boulez, in his first recording, is not to be dismissed at this point. His final act is deeply moving with Elisabeth Söderström giving one of her finest performances on disc. The dry CBS acoustic does not enhance her slightly limited vocal coloring but she probably embodies more than any Mélisande the other-worldliness of this character. If you are a fan of this soprano you will love this performance, if you can find a copy, remembering she is partnered by one of the very best Pelléas tenors, George Shirley. Golaud is the excellent Donald McIntyre. This set from Covent Garden was my first recording of the opera and made me love the piece. David Ward is the moving and truly old-sounding Arkel, though not wobbly or woofy, just elderly, and Yvonne Minton is a fine Geneviève. I seem to recall that Sony re-released a cleaned-up incarnation of this performance but it has since vanished from the catalogues.

Boulez’s is the only audio set I’ve heard in which a boy treble is used for Yniold, something I’d like to hear more often, in lieu of the usually too-feminine-sounding sopranos. Anthony Britten sings in tune and in character. The best of the soprano Yniolds is Patrizia Pace for Abbado. She bleaches the vibrato from her voice and does a very creditable little boy sound. Christine Barbaux and Leila Ben Sedira, Karajan and Désormière respectively, are far too feminine to convince, though they both possess lovely voices. Colette Alliot-Lugaz is good as Yniold for Jordan but is much finer as Dutoit’s Mélisande. She is also reported to be lovely on the Gardiner DVD set from Lyons, though thwarted by a vulgarized production by an over-heated wunderkind producer, the bane of our modern operatic existence.

There are several fine Golauds available on record. Henri-Bertrand Etcheverry is Désormière’s tortured man. Etcheverry is not as gruff as José Van Dam in either of his recordings, or McIntyre, but his expression of jealousy is conveyed with a certain underlying tension, in the focus of his tone, especially noteworthy in the nasty little scene with his son Yniold. The spat-out word ‘Tiens!’ at the end is frightening in its potential violence with the child. Van Dam is much more violent in his questioning of Mélisande making one wonder if she isn’t one of those women who are serially abused by men suffering from testosterone poisoning. Philippe Huttenlocher, Armin Jordan’s excellent Golaud, strikes a medium between danger and compassion in a compelling and unusually soft-grained and sympathetic performance by this under-rated singer. This recording was highly praised at the time of its release in 1979, containing as it does fine portrayals by another fine tenor Eric Tappy and Rachel Yakar’s exquisitely sung Mélisande. The Jordan recording would be one of the top four recommendations were it still at large. Jordan recaptured traces of the lost art of French operatic tradition with his all-French cast and orchestra.

Of the other Arkels, Genevièves and Yniolds there are no "bad" performances on any of the sets known to me. Perhaps the most beautifully vocalized Arkel is Jean-Philippe Courtis (Abbado). He doesn’t sound quite old enough, ideally, but his singing in the important final scene is glorious. I found Christa Ludwig’s Geneviève for Abbado to be slightly disappointing, especially in light of the superlative colleagues around her. Here is a woman whose husband is supposedly dying somewhere within the castle, yet Ludwig’s matron is jolly and full of ginger, hardly a care-worn woman on the verge of grief. Her husband lives as it turns out but we hear no more from his wife after receiving these glad tidings; one is left with the sneaking suspicion that Ludwig’s Geneviève has gone out riding to hounds in celebration.

Ludwig was nearing the end of a glorious career and it would be churlish to carp at the hardness of her tone, as recorded by DG. Instead one is happy to have yet another example of her intelligence at work in an interesting, albeit tiny, role. That having been said I was happy to return to Nadine Denize’s muted and lovely-voiced performance for Karajan. However, Germaine Cernay’s reading of the letter in Scene Two (Désormière) is perfectly capped by her utterance of "Qu’en dites vous?" ("What do you say [Arkel]?") thereby winning the Geneviève laurels. It is another one of those tiny lines that can change the entire tone of a scene in this piece. I can’t imagine a lover of Wolf’s Lieder not adoring Pelléas et Mélisande as it is full of tiny aperçus of emotion and telling communications delivered in one or two words.

I have not heard Monsieur Désiré Inghelbrecht’s recording, available only as part of a very expensive 6 disc compendium of his Debussy studio recordings [Naive 4857] recorded in 1962 and featuring Jacques Jansen in his third and final recording as Pelléas, Micheline Grancher, a singer unknown to me, as Mélisande, and Michel Roux’s Golaud. Ernest Ansermet’s set, recorded in 1964 [Decca 000064202] with the Suisse Romande Orchestra, and featuring Erna Spoorenberg, Camille Maurane and George London as the three main protagonists, was considered the "best buy" at the time of its release as the Désormière was not widely known or available and there was little competition.

There are live audio recordings by Karajan, from Rome in 1954 [Urania URA267], featuring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Mélisande and Ernst Haefliger the tenor Pelléas; Abbado from La Scala in 1986 [Opera d’Oro 1195], with von Stade as Mélisande and Kurt Ollmann’s Pelléas; and from the Grande Théatre in Geneva a live performance conducted by one Jean-Marie Auberson in 1969, released on Claves as one of their Chronos titles of ‘remarkable archive recordings’ [Claves CL50 2415/16]. A very young Eric Tappy is Pelléas, Erna Spoorenberg the experienced and respected Mélisande and Golaud is sung by the much-loved Gérard Souzay, so it might be worth investigating if you are an experienced hand at this opera and are still adding to your archives.

Neither have I seen the dvd filmed versions by John Eliot Gardiner from Lyon, released in 2002 [Image Entertainment 9311] with Colette Alliot-Lugaz, François LeRoux and José van Dam; Franz Welser-Möst from Zurich from a 2004 production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf [TDK OPPEM] featuring Isabel Rey, Rodney Gilfrey and and Michael Volle; or Andrew Davis from Glyndebourne [Kultur Video DVD 3117] released in 2005 with Christiane Oelze, Richard Croft and John Tomlinson. From what I’ve seen and read of these four filmed productions my instincts tell me that Peter Stein’s production with Pierre Boulez from Cardiff, which I have seen, is probably the safest choice, especially if you have an aversion to the feather-brained conceptualized productions so popular right now elsewhere in Europe.

There are a number of recordings that are out of print which might possibly be found with intrepid searching of used record shops and on-line. I have already mentioned the fine performances of Armin Jordan from Monte Carlo, once available on the defunct Erato label, and Pierre Boulez’s first recording originally released on the CBS label.

Emil Cooper’s performance from the Metropolitan Opera in 1945 with Martial Singher, Bidu Sayao and Lawrence Tibbett may be lurking out there somewhere, label unknown. And Ernest Ansermet recorded this opera twice before his 1964 version, first, in 1952 with Pierre Mollet, Suzanne Danco and Heinz Rehfuß and again in 1953 with Janine Micheau and Michael Roux, both from the studio, labels unknown though it is likely that one of them was on Decca, his usual company. Jean Fournet made a studio recording in 1962, details unknown, and in 1969 Lorin Maazel made a live recording with the RAI in Rome with Henri Gui, Jeanette Pilou and Gabriel Bacquier, again, label unknown. Rafael Kubelik conducts a live recording from the Bavarian State Opera in 1969 with a fine, if unusual, cast led by Nicolai Gedda, Helen Donath and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and I suspect this might have been recorded by DG, Kubelik’s usual company at that time.

Serge Baudo, a very find and under-appreciated conductor of the French repertoire, led a studio recording from 1978 with Claude Dormoy, Michèle Command and Gabriel Bacquier. I believe this was available on EMI and was highly praised at the time of its release and should be re-released. It is the only commercial recording of the wonderful Bacquier as Golaud, and Michèle Command was a beguiling as Mélisande.

There is no one right way to perform any work of music. Choosing one set to learn this opera by is really a matter of personal preference; for a singer, a conductor or recorded sound.

You must listen again and again to this work and allow it to get under your skin and begin to echo inside your skull. The best approach may be to read the synopsis first and then simply sit down and listen. Answer no telephones. It is an exercise similar to the old Zen admonishment to try and sit in an empty room and do nothing for five minutes. Pelléas et Mélisande presents quite a challenge to people used to the nonstop jingle-jangle of our fevered modern lives. After some time has passed, listen again ... and again, until you are inclined to take the trouble to follow the text word for word to capture those special lines that make this work so extraordinarily moving.

As I am a rather impatient and fidgety person this opera presented inordinate challenges to me in my effort to get to know it well. It has taken over thirty years for me to say that I really think I know the piece, but there is always an echo of doubt about that. I’m not sure this is a story that can ever be fully understood, which may be the secret to full comprehension of this opera; the paradox of knowing that you don’t know something and can never know it, like the secret purpose of Life itself, being the only way to accept and enjoy a sublime work of art like Pelléas et Mélisande.

The casual listener looking for entertainment and good tunes will be put-off by this opera. Some would, and do, call it boring, but given enough time, patience and application of an open heart and ears Pelléas et Mélisande will win you over, unless you possess a heart of stone and a head of bone. As the poet Arthur Hugh Clough wrote; "Say not the struggle naught availeth."

Jeffrey Sarver

 

 


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