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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande; Opera in Five Acts
Pelléas - Marc Mauillon
Mélisande - Jenny Daviet
Golaud - Laurent Alvaro
Arkel - Stephen Bronk
Geneviève - Emma Lyren
Yniold - Julie Mathevet
Médecin, Berger - Stefano Olcese
Malmö Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Maxime Pascal
Stage direction : Benjamin Lazar
Sets : Adeline Caron
Costumes : Alain Blanchot
Lighting design : Mael Iger
Assistant director : Elizabeth Calleo
Directed for TV by Corentin Leconte
Booklet: FR / ENG / GER
Original language: French; Subtitles: FR / ENG / GER / SPA / KOR / JAP
Video: Colour, 16/9, NTSC. Audio: PCM 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1
rec. May 2016, Malmö Opera
BEL AIR CLASSIQUES BAC144 DVD [2 discs: 178:00]

Debussy died a hundred years ago, and there is no better way to recognise his achievement than to stage his only completed opera. The Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck had a big, if not really enduring, international hit with his play Pelléas et Mélisande, not least with composers. Fauré, Schoenberg and Sibelius all wrote music for it or derived from it, as well as Debussy, for whose dramatic instincts and aesthetic it provided the near ideal libretto.

There is a single set. The dark forest of the first scene, filling the stage with massive tree trunks stretching up into the flies, is omnipresent; only a few items – a door-frame (without a door), some chandeliers and a chair are added for the second scene “in the castle”. And so it is throughout; these characters are permanently lost, in the dark, failing to find a path through the impenetrable thicket of life, their search for “la verité” ineffectual. The never-explained arrival of the mysterious Mélisande sets in motion a superficially conventional love triangle story, redeemed by its shadowy but all-pervasive symbolism.

There are modern costumes, mostly suggesting the 1970’s. Pelléas has a boyish pullover and bomber jacket, compared to his big brother’s leather hunting-jacket, Geneviève favours blingy necklaces and a coat, Mélisande is attired in simple dresses or a skirt and jumper. Mélisande also has a contemporary hairstyle, rather than the very long tresses that entangle Pelléas (in both senses). There is a full text, as Yniold is given his small but often cut scene (Act IV, scene 2) with the immovable boulder and the flock of sheep that does not return to the fold (presaging the slaughter of Pelléas in the following scene). The lighting and editing for film are effective.

The production really benefits from having three good French singers in the lead roles. This work has been called a “sung play” and few great operas have quite such a reverence for the original text, which needs to be heard. Hence the quasi-parlando style of much of the vocal writing, which sounds poetic, even evocative, with French or Francophone singers. Marc Mauillon has sung tenor and baritone parts, so the in-between tessitura of Pelléas suits him well. The voice is pleasant enough if a bit monochrome, and he acts convincingly. The Mélisande of Jenny Daviet is near ideal, in voice and appearance, and consistently provides the loveliest singing in the performance, including the upper reaches of her song ‘Mes longs cheveux descendent jusq’ua seuil de la tour’ that opens Act III, scene 2 (which is sung on a swing, not from a “tour”, for there is no tower). Laurent Alvaro too has not just the voice, but the emotional range for the character of Golaud, who undergoes the most extreme reactions to his inability to control events rather than be led by them. Anger, jealousy, remorse, violence, and entreaty are all mirrored in his music, and Alvaro rises to the score’s demands. The other characters assume their smaller roles effectively, especially the American Stephen Bronk, whose Arkel is sonorous and world-weary, and who brings weight to his philosophical reflections (“If I were God I would have pity on the hearts of men”).

The Malmö Opera Orchestra under Maxime Pascal sound idiomatic in the endlessly subtle orchestral writing, and the conductor has a real feel for the ebb and flow of the drama, and for the instrumental tracery. Not every important detail is brought out but Pascal rises to the powerful highlights, especially the big orchestral interlude following Golaud’s violent rejection of his wife in Act IV, even though here one would ideally like more weight of tone from the strings. The filming and sound are good, and the booklet adequate. There are no extras. My reference for a filmed Pelléas et Mélisande has long been the Boulez DVD of the 1992 Welsh National Opera production, sung in French but with a fine mainly British cast, superbly directed by Peter Stein (on DGG). This Malmö performance cannot quite match the staging and direction of that one, or the brilliant conducting and playing. But it is equally well sung, and is at least a satisfying modern complement. In the last analysis it does what any recording of this elusive work, filmed or sound only, must do – captivate us with a haunting dramatic score pervaded by the infinite and inescapable sadness of mortality.

Roy Westbrook

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