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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande
Christian Gerhaher – Pelléas
Magdalena Kožená – Mélisande
Gerald Finley – Golaud
Franz-Josef Selig – Arkël
Bernarda Fink – Geneviève
Joshua Bloom – Doctor, Shepherd
Elias Mädler – Yniold
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 9-10 January 2016, Barbican, London DSD
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD Ma 24bit/192kHz/2.0 DTS-HD Ma 24bit/192kHz
LSO LIVE LSO0790 SACD/BD-A [165:47]

I have something of a problem – in a good way – in reviewing this release: it’s hard to add to what colleagues have already said. In the first place, Simon Thompson has reviewed the recording in glowing terms and no little detail. To compound my difficulty, when I had finished my listening and sat down to write up my review I looked, as I always do with a live recording, to see if Seen and Heard had carried an appraisal of the performance itself and I discovered that Colin Clarke had attended the second of the performances from which this recording was drawn and, like Simon, he was also smitten (review). In fact, reading Colin’s review, which I now remember I saw at the time it was published, I was surprised in some ways that LSO Live has chosen to release the performance in audio only. A DVD release would have given the chance to see Peter Sellars’ semi-staging. On the other hand, not everyone reacts positively to Sellars’ work so perhaps audio-only is the safest choice.

I was struck recently by reading a description of Pelléas et Mélisande by the critic, Ivan Hewitt, who described the opera as “a drama told in murmurs and half-hints and silences”. How true that is, and how well the statement can be applied to this particular performance and, especially, to the orchestral contribution. I hope I will not be thought disrespectful of the singers if I comment first on the playing of the LSO under Rattle’s perceptive and subtle direction. Debussy made the orchestra function on several crucial levels in this opera. Firstly, it comments on the action and underlines the thoughts that the various characters are expressing. That much is not unusual in an operatic score. But Debussy goes further. The orchestra acts also as the scenic background to the action so that, as you listen, you can envision the scenery. Finally, in the masterly interludes between the various scenes the orchestra carries the plot forward; it is as if voices have said all they can and Debussy can only take forward the narrative through the use of instruments.

Debussy was one of the supreme orchestrators in musical history. In Pelléas he took his orchestral imagination to new heights and a performance of the opera will not succeed if the orchestral contribution is not top notch. I can honestly say that I have never heard the orchestral element of this score rendered so magnificently as is here the case. Simon Rattle has a famously acute ear for textures and colours and this score is ideally suited to those talents. The LSO responds with playing of the utmost sensitivity and sophistication so that Ivan Hewitt’s “murmurs and half-hints” are evoked with compelling and seductive beauty. I had completely forgotten until I re-read his review that Colin Clark had drawn attention to the unconventional orchestral layout adopted for these performances with the second violins and violas placed closest to the audience so that, as he put it, they “cradled” the first violins. Maybe that helps to explain in part the very lovely orchestra timbres that we hear on this recording. However, despite the loveliness of what we hear from the orchestra I am absolutely convinced that this is no case of beauty merely for its own sake. Rattle, I’m sure, wants to evoke a magical sound world in order to help us focus on the drama that Debussy unfolds and to draw us into that drama. In this he and the peerless LSO succeed triumphantly. Though the overwhelming impression is of great beauty, Rattle also conducts with great urgency when required, notably in the moments leading up to the murder of Pelléas by Golaud at the end of Act IV. It seems to me that Rattle paces the score to perfection. He’s never over-indulgent but he’s ever ready to draw out a phrase when the music – and the dramatic situation – requires it and he also judges the moments of silence with tremendous perception. This is wonderful, highly imaginative conducting which stems from a great understanding of the score.

The cast is a strong one. The smaller parts are well taken. Joshua Bloom snigs the part of the Shepherd in Act IV very well and is, if anything, even better as the Doctor in Act V. It’s a pleasure to hear Bernarda Fink as Geneviève in Act I and Franz-Josef Selig is especially effective in Arkël’s crucial contribution to Act V. I’m less sure of the treble Elias Mädler as Yniold. To be sure, he sings well but I’m not greatly drawn to his rather fruity timbre. That said, it’s very good to hear a treble in this music and Mädler displays no little maturity in delivering both words and music.

Your reaction to Magdalena Kožená’s depiction of Mélisande may well depend on what your ideal of this character is. I started off by thinking that she simply sounds too mature to suggest convincingly a young girl. That’s a dimension of the character that is better conveyed by the voice of, say, Suzanne Danco – a francophone, of course – on the famous 1951 recording conducted by Désiré-Émile Ingelbrecht (Testament SBT3 1484). However, as the performance unfolded I found that any such reservations were swept to one side by the conviction and involvement of Kožená. Mélisande’s dialogue with Pelléas from the tower window (Act III) is very well done and she expresses her character’s turbulence of emotions in the long Act IV scene with Pelléas – their last together – with great intensity. In Act V her infinitely touching delivery of Mélisande’s lines on what turns out to be her deathbed sets the seal on a fine performance. One slight snag – if such it be – is that her voice is quite similar in aspect to that of Bernarda Fink so that there isn’t all that great a contrast between the characters during the Act I exchanges between Mélisande and Geneviève.

The two male principals are outstanding and it’s surely no coincidence that both Christian Gerhaher and Gerald Finley are not just excellent in the opera house but also such superb song recitalists. Like the rest of the cast they are bring to life the conversational episodes in Debussy’s music and sing at all times with great care for the words. As Pelléas, Gerhaher here sings with a light, almost tenorial voice and he’s an ideal foil for Kožená in their scenes together. Listen, for example, to his eagerness in his first scene with Mélisande (Act I, scene 3). He’s absolutely splendid during the exchanges when he’s standing below Mélisande’s window (Act III, scene 1) and in the extended duet between the two lovers that leads up to the death of Pelléas he sings with great ardour.

Excellent though the other protagonists are, though, the dominant performance is given by Gerald Finley as Golaud. This is a superb assumption of character and he takes us through Golaud’s evolving emotions in a compelling way. At first (Act I, scene 1), Finley’s Golaud engages our sympathies but over time he changes and so, inevitably, do our feelings towards him. I’ve never quite understood why Golaud, when he surprises Pelléas and Mélisande in their tower window dialogue (Act III, scene 1), thinks they are engaged in nothing more that “jeux d’enfants”; he’s surely not that naïve? Soon, however, any naivety has turned to anger and jealousy and Finley gives us a chilling foretaste of what is to come when he takes Pelléas down into the bowels of the castle. In Act III, scene 4 we witness the conversation between Golaud and Yniold and now Finley brings Golaud’s suspicions increasingly to the fore, ratcheting up the tension as he does so. His jealous anger finally reveals itself in Act IV, scene 2 and here Finley’s portrayal is utterly convincing – and frightening – as he vents his anger on his young wife. The passage beginning “Une grande innocence!” is a masterly piece of verbal acting: you can almost see what is going on simply by listening to Gerald Finley’s voice. He’s just as magnificent in Act V – his soft delivery in his high register at “Mélisande, as-tu pitié de moi?” is an amazing piece of singing. During this last act his vocal acting, highly impressive throughout the opera, reaches a new peak. Gerald Finley’s Golaud is utterly compelling: I don’t think I’ve heard him do anything finer.

This, then, is a notable artistic achievement from all concerned. LSO Live has given the release the full treatment, issuing it on three hybrid SACDs and a Blu-ray audio disc. I used the BD-A disc for most of my listening and I found the sound quality to be extremely good. The disc offers 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound options; I used the latter. The engineers have conveyed the orchestral sound superbly while the voices are clearly heard in just the right relationship to the orchestra. The sampling I did of the SACDs indicates that collectors who listen in that format will also obtain high quality results.

The documentation includes the full libretto and English translation. There’s a short but useful note by George Hall, though his separate synopsis is a bit on the basic side.

This superb set is a major addition to the discography of Debussy’s great opera.

John Quinn

Previous review: Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month)



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