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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande – opera in five acts (1902)
Stéphane Degout – Pelléas
Elena Tsallagova – Mélisande
Vincent le Texier – Golaud
Anne Sofie Von Otter – Geneviève
Franz Josef Selig – Arkel
Julie Mathevet – Yniold
Jérôme Varnier – Shepherd, Doctor
Orchestra and Chorus of Opéra National de Paris/Philippe Jordan
Robert Wilson – Director, Lighting, Designs
rec. live, Opéra National de Bastille, March 2012
Region Code 0, Aspect Ratio 16:9, Dolby 2.0 Stereo
NAÏVE DR2159 [168:00]

I’m very conflicted when it comes to writing about this DVD. It exemplifies how problematic a genre opera is and how rare it is for everything to come together successfully. I might heartily praise certain aspects of this disc, but there are others I would run a mile from.
The musical values, for a start, are exceptionally good, and if this were an audio-only release then it might come towards the top of a lot of people’s lists. The singers are among the finest in their roles that I have come across, especially the exceptional Pelléas of Stéphane Degout. He sings this problematic role with ardent intensity that had the capacity to bowl me over, and he is well contrasted with the unusually light voice of Elena Tsallagova as Mélisande. Where Degout’s voice oozes sensuality and passion, hers is a little distant, almost cold at times. She makes Mélisande a distant, slightly detached character; a perfectly legitimate reading, and a contrast to the heady intensity that many sopranos bring to the role. Their scenes together are excellent, and the finest scene on the disc is the end of Act 4 when the pair meet and urge one another on to ever more ecstatic declarations of their passion. This scene also showcases the wonderful playing of the orchestra, pulsating with scarcely suppressed longing, and the supple, pliable direction of Philippe Jordan which allows every scene to move with purposeful vision, but also to dart off in directions which might surprise us.
The other parts are just as distinguished. Vincent le Texier’s Golaud is a grand, almost Wagnerian figure. His is a deeper, darker voice than one might normally associate with the role, thus underlining the scale of his suffering, and he is poignant beyond belief in the final scene. Franz Josef Selig also brings vast reserves of powerful dignity to the character of Arkel. He seems world-weary and careworn in the first and last acts, but his dialogue with Mélisande in the fourth act, where he misguidedly sings of Mélisande opening the door to a new era, is redolent with life and hope, thereby making his acting every bit as exciting as his singing. Anne Sofie Von Otter invests the role of Geneviève with restrained dignity, and Julie Mathevet is a convincing Yniold.
Musically speaking, then, all is very well. To say that Robert Wilson’s production is an acquired taste, however, is to put it very mildly! Those who know the director’s work will find no surprises here. Wilson’s style is to ritualise the drama through gesture and distance, and his direction of singers is the polar opposite of naturalism. His method owes a lot to the stylised world of, say, Japanese Noh drama. Indeed, the scene where Pelléas and Golaud enter the castle vaults seems to resemble a giant Sumo wrestling ring where the two circle each other and size one another up. In many ways his production suits the symbolist world of the drama very well. His characters barely ever look at one another directly, reinforcing the idea that no-one in Maeterlinck’s world understands anyone else. I liked the way the scenes blend into one another, with the sets gliding in and out of the stage area in a way that seems to reflect the manner of the music. However, I found his approach very uninvolving, on the whole. That may be the point, but I didn’t like it. Pelléas is a world of constantly shifting shadows, but it is also one of sensuality and, to an extent, abandonment. I found it impossible to imagine any of these characters investing in one another to any great degree. In the tower scene, for example, the two lovers stand at opposite ends of the stage with barely any interaction. It doesn’t help that the stage if flooded in a sickly blue light throughout. Normally I enjoy Wilson’s work – I really liked his Alceste – and some may identify with his vision of the work which is entirely justifiable. I found it estranging and isolating, though.
It is with the technical aspects that this DVD really comes unstuck, though. As with their Don Quichotte, the sound is 2.0 stereo only, and I always feel that this misses the golden opportunity for surround sound that DVD affords. More seriously, though, the recording levels are all wrong. Whether it’s microphone placing or studio capturing, the sound levels frequently distort and break up, ruining the experience, whether you’re enjoying the staging or not. It could just be the copy that I got, but if not then it’s a serious flaw with the disc that should have been sorted out by the engineers.
With regret for the excellent singing and playing, then, I have to say no to this DVD. No matter what you think of Wilson’s design, this disc still comes a very long way behind what is, for me, still the best Pelléas on DVD, namely Boulez’s seminal WNO performance. It still has the power to make your hair stand on end nearly three decades later. That DVD gives thrills that this one can only dream of.
Simon Thompson