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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande
(1902) Dramme Lyrique en cinq actes
Pelléas - Stanislas De Barbeyrac (tenor); Mélisande – Chiara Skerath (soprano); Golaud – Alexandre Duhamel (bass-baritone); Geneviève - Janina Baechele (mezzo); Arkel – Jérôme Varnier (bass); Yniold – Maëlig Querré (soprano); Le berger/ Le médecin – Jean-Vincent Blot (baritone)
Choeur et l’Orchestre National de Bordeaux Aquitaine/Pierre Dumoussaud
rec. November 2020, Auditorium de l’Opéra de Bordeaux
ALPHA CLASSICS 752 [71:31 + 77:09]

Claude Debussy’s operatic masterpiece is one of the most eloquently orchestrated works of the Twentieth Century. It is a translucent score filled with shifting moods and perspectives that seem to appear, transform, and then move away. I think of it as a sort of paean to inexpressible emotions or those that at most, are barely expressed. It is one of those works that could easily be thought of as having had every emotional twist and turn revealed by the two dozen or so past recordings to have been issued. Now along comes along a version with something more to reveal about this piece, as does this fine newcomer on review here.

Pierre Dumoussaud is a conductor who is fairly new to the international scene after having won the 2017 International Competition for Opera Conductors organised by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie. With only two previous commercial recordings to his name (review and review), one might think that such a young conductor would have a less fully realized encapsulation of this magnificent score than did a maestro such as the ageing Ernest Ansermet in his two fine recordings of this opera. Happily, this is not the case. Dumoussaud presents a very lucid and eloquent account of Debussy’s score. His collaboration with the Bordeaux orchestra and the team of recording engineers has produced one of the most transparent recordings of this work that I have yet come across. Dumoussaud has made the decision to have the orchestra given equal prominence with the voices, essentially unveiling all the fine nuances in this magical score. The orchestra sounds as if the listener were actually standing in the orchestra pit alongside the conductor. I found myself engrossed in each new phrase or effect as it was so clearly revealed. The acoustic is warm and clear and not too spacious as it was in Herbert von Karajan’s beautiful failure for EMI in the 1970’s. The only time I felt that a bit of the opera’s magic had been lost is in the calls of the offstage sailors in Act One. The chorus has been placed too close to the microphones and it spoils the scene to some degree. This is more than made up for in the clarity and perception to be found in the scene in the grotto that concludes Act Two, and the palpable sense of a physical shock that the conductor conveys to the listener when Golaud stumbles across the lovers in the tower scene.

The cast of principals is in general quite good. Alexandre Duhamel contributes a strong yet nuanced portrait of Golaud. His voice harkens back to the sound of the great Vanni-Marcoux, if not quite possessing the natural bite to be found in the tone of his famous predecessor. Chiara Skerath has a fascinating dusky sound to her soprano, quite unlike most Mélisandes on disc; this makes her princess sound less waiflike and more three dimensional than other intrepretations have in the past. Stanislas De Barbeyrac’s Pelléas is a rare thing in having a tenor take on the role. On disc I can only recall George Shirley and Eric Tappy having sung it for Pierre Boulez and Armin Jordan respectively. De Barbeyrac is a likeable and earnest Pelléas and he uses his voice well, but there is a slight edge to his sound which I find to be distracting at times. I could also wish for some more light and shade in his expression although this could also be due to his proximity to the microphones. In general I have found that tenors who sing this role sound a little too ardent when compared to the high baritones which Debussy preferred for his Pelléas.

The remainder of the family are portrayed well enough. Jérôme Varnier is a sympathetic Arkel. He uses his deep-toned bass with expressiveness although occasionally his voice loses some of its focus and pitch. Janina Baechele is a disappointment as Geneviève as her mezzo veers towards a rather hooty sound and is frequently unsteady. Maëlig Querré is a young soprano who has been drawn from the chorus to sing her first solo role as the little Yniold. She makes a most believable sounding child in an auspicious recording debut.

While this may not be the Pelléas recording of one’s dreams, I found so much in it to enjoy that despite some minor vocal flaws, I would now choose this recording over the Simon Rattle recording with the LSO (review). That recording features the powerful performance of Gerald Finley as Golaud although I feel the role of Pelléas lies a bit too high for Christian Gerhaher to sing with comfort. Alpha’s recording may not be filled with star names but it reveals so much more about the work than before. It is particularly worth acquiring for those who wish to really get inside the orchestral details of this opera. One would do well to start acquainting oneself with the Dumoussaud recording before moving on to other more established recordings from the past.

Mike Parr

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