RECORD OF THE MONTH
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande (sung in English) [154:49]
Arkel – John Tomlinson (bass); Geneviève – Sarah Walker (mezzo); Pelléas – Robert Dean (baritone); Golaud – Neil Howlett (baritone); Mélisande – Eilene Hannan (soprano); Yniold – Rosanne Brackenridge (soprano); Doctor and Shepherd – Sean Rea (bass)
Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera/Mark Elder
rec. live, London Coliseum, 28 November 1981
English text included
CHANDOS CHAN 3177(3) [3 CDs: 54:24 + 36:10 + 64:15]
I have always thought of Pelléas et Mélisande as a work where the music is so intimately related to the text and its sound that any translation would seriously weaken its impact. At the same time the resulting need for non-French speakers to follow the printed text and translation whilst listening does mean that there can be a sense of watching the action through a grimy pane of glass. Previous published singing translations that I have encountered lack the fluency of the original French, and can be clumsy and no easier for the listener to follow than the original language. The translation used here is by Hugh MacDonald, whose note in the booklet explains his view that Maeterlinck’s play, the basis for Debussy’s libretto, avoids fanciful language and is in the plainest prose. Accordingly MacDonald believes that the opera should be sung in the language of the audience and should be translated in a very direct way, avoiding the poetic conceits and inverted word orders encountered in other versions. To achieve this he has not hesitated to rewrite the vocal line where necessary in a tactful and convincing manner. The result is very successful in enabling the English-speaking listener to take in and respond to the words as they are sung.
The success or otherwise of such an operation depends crucially on the singers’ ability to enunciate the text clearly. For the most part this is achieved, although as usual it is the female voices that have the greatest difficulty. As a result I found it helpful to have the printed English text beside me when listening but this was not essential. It is very apparent from this recording just what a strong team of singers was available at ENO in 1981. The various roles are cast with a view to the essential vocal contrasts implicit in the music, with Neil Howlett’s strength of voice as well as its very characterful flicker, Eilene Hannan’s ability to convey Mélisande’s fragility without actually sounding fragile herself and John Tomlinson’s weary authority as Arkel most notable. The others are all good too, but as in any satisfactory performance of this opera it is the sense of a team that is most important. Better still, Mark Elder conducts a performance that manages to convey both the strangeness and the passion of the music avoiding the twin traps of becoming fey or coarse.
This was a live performance so that there are occasional stage noises - although applause has mercifully been removed - and a few very minor slips. None of this matters given the real sense of drama here. There are also cuts in some of the interludes between scenes to fit in with the production. I do not know whether these follow the composer’s own original shortened version but they certainly do no harm to either the music or the drama. All in all this is an important and distinguished addition to the Chandos Opera in English series.
An important and distinguished addition to the Chandos Opera in English series.