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Debussy Pelleas HMM905352
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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
Mélisande (soprano) - Vannina Santoni
Pelléas (tenor) - Julien Behr
Golaud (baritone) - Alexandre Duhamel
Geneviève (mezzo-soprano) - Marie-Ange Todorovitch
Arkel (bass) - Jean Teitgen
Le Médecin (baritone -bass) - Damien Pass
Yniold (boy soprano) - Hadrien Joubert de la Maîtrise de Caen
Un berger (bass) - Mathieu Gourlet
Chorus of Opéra de Lille, Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. March 2021, Opéra de Lille, France & Auditorium Patrick Devedjian, La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905352.54 [157:55]

The issue of historically informed performance (HIP), already interesting, becomes particularly intriguing when it comes to music whose early performance traditions make it into the era of recorded sound. In pretty dreadful sound, we can hear a brief extract of Mary Garden (accompanied by the composer himself no less) singing Mélisande, a part she premiered.

Roth and his band, Les Siècles, have made a specialism of this tumultuous era in the musical life of the French capital with superb sets of the early ballets of Stravinsky and the orchestral music of Ravel. In both sets, one of the greatest pleasures has been hearing the distinctive timbres of the instruments used at the time before homogenisation made most orchestras sound very similar. The same is undoubtedly true of this new recording. It is intriguing to be able remove the surface noise from the older recordings and hear what the orchestral writing sounds like in modern sound. Woodwind that in older versions have a striking plangency really ring out in this version.

More problematic is the issue of historically informed singing. Whilst it would be wrong to assume that one singer is wholly representative, Mary Garden, who I mentioned earlier, was closely identified with the role so it seems reasonable to assume that, atrocious sonics from 1904 and all, what we are hearing is the vocal performance of the era. The first thing to be said about Vannina Santoni’s performance as Mélisande in this new set is that it sounds nothing like Garden’s. Leaving aside the fact that I find her voice a bit too fruity for the part, it is not, of course, reasonable to expect any singer to sound just like another. The issue, though, is one of performance style and it has to be said that Santoni sounds pretty much like any other modern singer taking on the part. This needn’t be a problem but, at the very least, it feels like a missed opportunity given the historically informed nature of the rest of the performance. I should also say that I am not singling out Santoni. It is just that we happen to have that precious 1904 fragment of the part of Mélisande. The same point could equally be made about any of the singers recorded for this new set. It raises a different question too as to how much modern singers are even able to sing in a performance style close to what Debussy would have known? An oboist can just swap instrument for example but a singer can’t change their voice that radically so easily.

I recently reviewed a recording of Schubert’s Winterreise by the Australian singer David Greco whose performance deployed very successfully a number of techniques gleaned from his studies into performance practice. He cited as an influence the earliest extant recording of a song from Winterreise by Franz Naval. In Greco’s singing such influences were audible in terms of performance style but the obvious fact was the two singers differed in fundamental ways in their manner of voice production. The same could be said about Santoni and Mary Garden.

My personal favourite recording of Pélleas is the famous mono set conducted by Roger Désormière recorded in 1941. There have been fine recordings since but, apart from the excellence of the French conductor’s interpretation, the central decisive matter is the style of the singing. Simply put, on no later set do the singers sound quite like this and to my ears that style really matters. It can easily be questioned how much the vocal style on a recording made 37 years after the composer’s death really is authentic but, put to the listening test, there is a clear and audible link between Désormière’s Mélisande, Irène Joachim, and the 1904 fragment by Mary Garden.

If I found Santoni’s voice a little too heavy for an ideal Mélisande, both the principal men sing very well, albeit in the latter day style. At first I found Alexanndre Duhamel’s Golaud a little lifeless but he grows into the part as the opera develops and is capable of rough energy but also singing of great refinement when required. His pointing of the words, again a bit flat to begin with, develops with the dramatic tension of the later acts.

The pick of the bunch for me is Julien Behr’s beautiful traversal of the part of Pelléas. There is always a danger that if sung in too precious a manner, Pelléas ends up sounding wet. Alongside his lovely legato there is a heroic tinge to Behr’s voice that makes the erotic charge at the heart of the opera’s action seem plausible. He certainly possesses a voice good enough to sing in the old style and again it is a pity he wasn’t encouraged to do so. That said, he consistently makes a rapturous, lovely sound that seems to float above the diaphanous bed of sound the Siècles produce.

My conclusion from all this is that this period Pelléas needs to considered alongside modern versions rather than, vocally at least, alongside older recordings. Perhaps it is better thought of as a hybrid since the orchestral playing, such a crucial element in this work, really does link back to older, more characterful days.

For starters, the orchestra sounds unmistakably and gloriously French. Add to that the transparency these period instruments give to Debussy’s veils of sound and the effect is ravishing.

I felt initially that Roth’s pacing let the dramatic pulse slacken too much in order to revel in the manifold myriad delights of the score but there is no lack in the big confrontations in the later acts. In the final scene with the dying Mélisande, both Duhamel as Golaud and Roth rise to the occasion with a ferocity that will surprise those used to a more languid approach.

The next question is how does this new set compare to the best of the recentish past? Extremely well, I think. I have always found Abbado’s celebrated set a bit of a bore not helped by unidiomatic singing. The whole enterprise lacks that essential sense of mystery. With the famous/infamous Karajan recording, lovely singing by Van Stade and Van Dam notwithstanding (I find Stillwell a bit reedy and somewhat of a wet weekend as Pelléas), it will always come down to how one reacts to the orchestral sound. It is gorgeous with a capital G but ultimately I find it a bit like being smothered with velvet pillows. With Boulez, I encounter almost the opposite problem: everything is precise and cool and suitably insouciant but there does need to be a bit more sensual sound for the sake of sensual sound. Abbado’s recording might be seen as possessing the best qualities of Karajan and Boulez but I find it possesses neither. Roth’s recording seems to me to possess the sexy passion and ripeness of Karajan without the Wagnerian stodge but also the elegant restraint of Boulez when required. You would never know from the Karajan recording but a lot of the Pelléas score is spare and austere.

The quality of the recording on this new set is a distinct feather in its cap. In a score full to the brim with orchestral detail, a clear but sympathetic modern recording is one area in which a new recording can excel the old, rather murky orchestral sound on the Désormière set. Another very well engineered and produced recent recording is that from Alpha with Pierre Dumoussand conducting Bordeaux forces. Neither his singers, his orchestra nor his interpretation are quite a match for Roth in the final estimation. To mention another big name, recent taping, I found Rattle live with the LSO curiously uninvolving and that Roth is by far the better choice.

Before drawing the inevitable conclusion that I won’t be budging from my loyalty to the Désormière set, I would want to try and remedy any sense that I am damning this new Roth set with faint praise. It is exquisitely played, beautifully paced and generally extremely well sung in the modern style. I won’t be budging but I will keep coming back to the Roth to listen in wonder yet again to the miracles Debussy achieves in the orchestral parts of this luminous, mysterious score.

David McDade

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