Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande - Lyric Opera in Five Acts (1902) [2:28:20]
Mélisande - Suzanne Danco (soprano); Pelléas - Pierre Mollet (tenor); Golaud - Heinz Rehfuss (baritone); Arkel - André Vessièrese (bass); Geneviève - Hélène Bouvier (soprano); Yniold - Flora Wend (soprano); A shepherd/The Doctor - Derrick Olsen (bass)
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, April 1952. ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0133 [72:15 + 76:05]

Despite a lack of any real understanding of the real meaning of Maeterlinck’s strange play, made no easier by having no more than schoolboy French, I continue to find this the most fascinating and moving of all French operas. The economy with which the composer characterizes and projects each scene is astonishing, as is the skill with which the words are allowed to speak for themselves, enhanced but not swamped by the music.

This recording was made for the fiftieth anniversary of the opera, and the booklet retains the original and very perceptive introductory essay by the conductor. I have known it since childhood but have not heard it for many years, so that it has been fascinating returning to it, in a much more convenient form with its former bulk - four LPs originally! - reduced to a slim CD case, albeit without a libretto. Immediately I started to listen the performance cast its spell, and whilst no-one could take it for a modern recording the clarity and transparency of the sound of the orchestra remains a model. The voices are very forward, at times obscuring some details in the orchestra, but this does mean that the singers’ wonderfully clear and idiomatic declamation of the text is always predominant. For this of all operas a libretto is essential for the non-French speaker and the synopsis in the booklet notes whilst helpful is not sufficient on its own. It is certainly worth buying a dual language libretto elsewhere - the version in the ENO/ROH series is particularly convenient in its layout or you may prefer to find a version on the internet.

There are many recordings of this work now, including many with significantly better recording quality and orchestra’s of greater inherent quality. The Suisse Romande Orchestra clearly understands its conductor’s wants but at times sounds somewhat stretched, and some of the wind playing is not of the quality you might expect. Nonetheless they do succeed much more than many more obviously glamorous orchestras in conveying the essential musical line of the work and the changing atmosphere of a score of which Ansermet was such a master. All in all this remains a gripping performance of this elusive opera. I have not heard earlier reissues but this version certainly presents it to better advantage than its initial issue. This is surely a set which anyone interested in the opera should possess despite its age and the indisputable technical limitations of performance and recording.

John Sheppard