Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
The Edgar Allan Poe Operas
La Chute de la Maison Usher (1910 rev. 1915/16) [51:56]
William Dazeley (baritone) - Roderick Usher
Eugene Villanueva (baritone) - A friend of Roderick
Virgil Hartinger (tenor) - The Doctor
Lin Lin Fan (soprano) - Lady Madeline

Le Diable dans le Beffroi (1903) [36:56]
Eugene Villanueva (baritone) - The Burgomaster
Lin Lin Fan (soprano) - Jeannette
Michael Dries (bass) - the Bell-ringer
Virgil Hartinger (tenor) - Jean
Kammerchor St. Jacobi Göttingen
Göttinger Symphonie Orchester/Christoph-Mathias Mueller
rec. Stadthalle Göttingen, Germany, 10-11 December 2013
PAN CLASSICS PC10342 [51:56 + 36:56]

Nick Barnard has already written about some of the background to these pieces, and to Robert Orledge’s reconstruction (or, in many cases, creation) of these operas. All that remains for me to do is to add my stick about how much I enjoyed them as stand-alone pieces.

You could argue until you’re blue in the face about how much Debussy is or isn’t in here: the general consensus that I’ve read seems to be that there is a heck of a lot more Orledge than echt Debussy. That never once bothered me, however. Orledge does a mighty good job of impersonating the French composer, to my ears, adopting important stylistic similarities. Most obviously, he writes for the voices in the same one-syllable-to-a-note manner that Debussy showcases in Pelléas, so he eschews soaring arias and arching melodies in favour of atmosphere, texture and sound-picture. I found it very effective, particularly so in the über-atmospheric Fall of the House of Usher. Touches in the prelude, such as the keening cor anglais or dusky violas against the trumpet solo, are so totally atmospheric and evocative of the feeling of encroaching menace that it always seemed like the composer of Pelléas. The evocative melismas of Madeline's brief opening aria are wonderfully atmospheric, and the gurgling wind solos that accompany the first interaction of the doctor and the friend seem to hint at lots of things that lie beneath the words. Roderick Usher's long, gloomy introductory monologue is a masterclass in dramatic pacing and mood depiction, with countless touches of orchestral colour that enhance the mood. The passage, where Roderick describes the fear that clutches at his heart, is especially effective, with throbbing drums, racing strings and wailing winds to colour the musical texture wonderfully.

Dramatically, Usher’s main problem is that too much of it is monologue or dialogue, which tends away from the dramatic. It’s also a problem, when you're following it in the booklet, because the English and French texts are given several pages apart rather than in parallel columns, so your O-Level French is going to have to come in useful, if you're to avoid flicking between the pages. The ending is worth waiting for, however, combining singing and speech as the horrific catharsis dawns, and the jangling orchestration had me hooked, even though the final chords feel rather abrupt.

The mood of The Devil in the Belfry couldn't be more different: it’s bright, sparky, external and ironic where Usher is all introverted gloom. Here there appears to be much more Orledge and less Debussy, which might explain some of the deft but untypical touches, but I enjoyed it very much. It features some lovely characteristic dances, for example (very un-Debussian!), and there is some beautifully light love music for Jean and Jeannette. There are even a few musical jokes, such as the broken carillon once the devil takes it over, or the gentle satire on other composers' music which Orledge inserts into the devil's violin playing.

Nonetheless, Robert Orledge has done us all a favour by reanimating the corpses of two of Debussy’s stage works that never were. Purists will always cry foul, but here are two very satisfying pieces of music drama that deserve a fair chance.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Nick Barnard

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