Pelléas Jacques Jansen
Mélisande Irène Joachim
Golaud Henri Etcheverry
Geneviève Germaine Cernay
Arkel Paul Cabanel
Yniold Leila Ben Sedira
The Shepherd Emile Rousseau
The Doctor Armand Narcon
Choeurs Yvonne Gouverné
Grand Orchestre Symphonique du Gramophone
3. Gustave Cloez Recorded 1928
Geneviève Germaine Cernay
4. Albert Wolff Recorded 1930
Pelléas André Gaudin
Mélisande Simone Berriao
Golaud José Beckmans
CD No: ANDANTE 3990 (4 CDs) Duration: Reviewed: April 2003
Andante Debussys Pelléas et Mélisande
Reviewed by Tim Ashley
Hard on the heels of Andantes encyclopaedic examination of Gounods Faust as it would have been heard in France in the inter-war years, comes this equally imposing set devoted to Debussys Pelléas et Mélisande. Issued late last year to mark the centenary of the operas premiere, its aims are broadly similar. The first complete recording Roger Désormières famous EMI version is combined with a series of earlier abridgements or recordings of extracts, extended or otherwise. The whole is intended to give an extensive survey of Debussys opera as one might have expected to hear it in France between 1927 and 1941.
As with the Faust, we are asked to admire an unbroken, inherently French performance tradition that dates back to the operas premiere. Mary Garden, who sang the first performance, coached Irène Joachim, Désormières Mélisande, in the role. Gardens Golaud was Hector Dufranne, who can be heard in Georges Trucs abridgement alongside the Pelléas of Alfred Maguenat. He first sang the role in 1914, in a performance that Debussy deeply admired. Trucs Geneviève is the great Franco-Irish mezzo Claire Croiza, whom Debussy also adored as an interpreter of his songs, and who also attracted composers as far apart as Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Roussel.
All of this gives the set a tremendous stamp of authority, as if Debussy himself were hovering unseen over the whole proceedings. Yet if we examine his own views on the matter, we find that Andante hasnt quite given us the whole story. The
singers on these discs were all native French speakers. Debussys own preference when it came to the role of Mélisande the stranger whose intrusion into Allemonde both precipitates emotional catastrophe and brings about her own destruction was to intensify the characters symbolic and emotional resonance by casting an effective outsider. Garden was Scottish and subsequently lived in the USA, though at the time of the premiere she was based in France. In 1908, meanwhile, Debussy coached the young Maggie Teyte in the role, launching a career that became the stuff of legend.
Regrettably, neither soprano is included here. It could, of course, be argued that their recordings fall outside the reference points that Andante has set itself. Garden, who can be heard on a very early pre-electrical 78 singing Mes longs cheveux descendent was firmly ensconced on the other side of the Atlantic by 1921. Teytes recordings of extracts (currently available on Naxos Historical she sings both Mélisande and Geneviève) were made in London in 1947. Gardens entire discography is often unfairly dismissed as being not very good. Teytes performances, however, rank, by common consent, among the finest examples of Debussy singing on disc; and since she regularly appeared as Mélisande in France in the 1920s, their exclusion creates something of a void.
Whatever the merits elsewhere of this set, its picture of Pelléass early and inter-war performance history is, in some respects, incomplete. Leaving such qualms aside, it should be said that Désormières performance was a milestone in recording history and is still regarded by many as definitive. An element of mystery, to some extent, hangs over it. It was recorded in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1941. Given that Désormières Mélisande, Irène Joachim, was Jewish, you wonder just how the set came to be made in the first place, though the sense of a need to preserve, almost with resistant defiance, all that was best in the French musical tradition hovers understandably behind it.
The recording was based round performances at the Opéra Comique (where the premiere took place), though the often- repeated remark that the sense of dramatic give-and-take among the cast derived from long experience of singing it together is
actually erroneous since Jacques Jansen had only just made his debut as Pelléas when the set was made. The orchestra, also, derives not from the Opéra Comique, but is simply credited as Orchestre Symphonique.
Whether it remains definitive is also open to dispute, though here, inevitably, personal preferences and beliefs as to what this most elusive of operas is about almost inevitably come into play. In some respects Désormières is the safest performance to survive in sound, the recording that confirms the most commonly reiterated assumptions about the work, namely that it is symbolist, dream-like, shadowy and primarily a thing of muted whispers. The tone throughout is delicate. Désormière avoids anchoring the score overtly in the post-Romantic tradition, as Georges Truc did in his abridgement, or as Karajan would do in a later EMI recording. Debussys grudging debt to Wagner is consequently played down, which may have been a political gesture given the circumstances in which the recording was made.
The sense of claustrophobia of emotions reaching boiling point but never fully released favoured by some interpreters, is also played down to Désormière. This is a quality we also find in Truc, in Emil Coopers live New York Met performance (also dating from 1941 and now on Naxos Historical), as well as in Boulezs controversial recording, in which the emotional pitch reaches a level of Strindbergian stridency. A number of recent productions both Harry Kupfer and Richard Jones at English National Opera, and Graham Vick at Glyndebourne have taken the work into similar territory. Désormière insists on half tones throughout, on an infinitely shaded down orchestral palette and on singing of refined simplicity.
As a result, some of the scenes have always struck me as being underplayed. Golauds frightful attack on Mélisande in Act Four is lacking in violence and consequently in the supreme compassion that Debussy feels for Golaud at this point. The subsequent love scene between Pelléas and Mélisande similarly seems short on both eroticism and desperation. Here considerations of casting come into play, since both Jansen and Joachim, in contrast to other interpreters yet again, very much encapsulate the conventional view that the lovers are innocents
destroyed by Golauds unfounded suspicions.
Joachim is girlish, impulsive and bright of voice. She avoids passivity and can often be tellingly animated, playing with her wedding ring at the well like a child with a toy, wheedling and manipulative Golaud until he turns on her.
Jansens Pelléas, meanwhile, is very much the dreamy teenager, unaware of his emotions, even when they spill out in the tower scene. Je les noue as he ties Mélisandes hair to the branches of the tree is wonderfully done rapt and erotic, yet also supremely playful. Henri Etcheverrys Golaud, meanwhile, is melancholic and reflective rather than temperamental. He sounds younger than most, which is perfectly feasible despite Yniolds presence and references in the text to Golauds grey hair, theres no logical reason for the thirty-year age-gap between the half-brothers that many interpretations seem to foist on us.
The rest of the casting is impressive, though not always ideal. Paul Cabanel is a gravely eloquent Arkel, though he sounds far too young. Germaine Cernay, who died shortly after the recording was made, is an impressive Geneviève, though the voice sounds richer and her delivery of the letter scene more searching and subtle in the earlier performance with Gustave Cloez, which can be found among the extracts.
Leila Ben Sedira, however, is as good a Yniold as one could wish for, admirably avoiding cuteness and capturing the boys terrors with unnerving vividness. The recording comes largely undoctored, as is Andantes policy, though the sound might make you jolt a bit, if youre used to EMI References hefty re-mastering. The frequently voiced complaint that the orchestral sound, particularly the strings and wind, is thinly recorded doesnt stand up to scrutiny here, though the voices now come over as very far forward and the orchestra recessed and distant, even in the interludes.
As with the Andante issue of Faust, however, the real revelations come from some of the accompanying material, and pride of place in this set must, inevitably, go to Trucs version, recorded by Columbia in 1928. The late 20s and early 30s was, by and large, the era of abridged operatic recordings, and produced such benchmark performances as Robert Hegers 1933 Der Rosenkavalier and Albert Wolffs Faust. Trucs Pelléas belongs, without doubt, in such exalted company, though there are many who will find the abridgement itself more than maddening.
Broadly speaking, Truc offers us Acts I and II more or less complete, then follows it with the Tower scene (Act III, Scene 1) before closing with the Act IV interlude. This means we miss some crucial scenes that we perhaps most want to hear Golaud and Yniold outside Mélisandes bedroom window, Golauds attack on Mélisande and the lovers subsequent declaration of passion. What we do have, however, is astonishing. Like Désormière, Truc built his recording round live performances, though the source, this time, is the Paris Opera rather than the Opéra Comique. This inevitably confers a certain grandeur of approach that sets it apart from Désormières performance and might perplex many of the latters admirers. The orchestral sound is fuller, the recording
remarkably well balanced and vivid for its day, the tone and the psychological interplay substantially different.
As mentioned earlier, Truc is both post-Romantic and post-Wagnerian in ways that Désormière is not. When we reach Allemonde in Act I, the debt to the Grail scenes in Parsifal is flagrantly apparent. The whiff of pomposity tells us we might well be approaching the decaying remains of Monsalvat, while Désormière shades the music down to the shadowiest remembrance of a Wagnerian motto.
Elsewhere, Truc allows a pall of claustrophobic eroticism to hang over the score, while the relationships between the characters are delineated with infinite, and at times alarming subtlety.
In marked contrast to Désormière, nerves are already at breaking point in this world, as a comparison of the opening scene makes clear. Etcheverry, lost in Désormières forest, is world-weary and exhausted. Dufranne, trapped in Trucs, is snappily frustrated, and Golauds tendency to irrationalistic violence is immediately established. The lovers, here, are knowing rather than innocent. Maguenats Pelléas, with a tenor-ish brightness of tone, is forthright and assertive, far removed from Jansenss dreaminess. Nespoulos, darker voiced than Joachim, evinces a Lolita-ish sexuality. The difference between the two versions is most pronounced in the Tower Scene, in which Maguenat and Nespoulos enact an erotic ritual, fraught with sadomasochistic danger. Maguenats delivery of Tu es ma prisonniere pour la nuit carries with it overtones of a sexual threat that Jansens does not.
Golauds interruption carries contrary ironies, if we place both versions side by side. When Etcheverry sings Vous etes des enfants he is stating the truth and his suspicions are consequently misplaced. When Dufranne sings the same words, he is actually wrong and the operas meaning becomes infinitely more complex.
The rest of Trucs cast is equally wonderful. Croiza is by far the best Geneviève on disc, reading her letter with infinite sadness, and painfully aware from the outset that Mélisande will never survive in the shuttered world of Allemonde. Narcon (who later sang the Doctor for Désormière) matches Cabanel in nobility, though he sounds the right age. Its a formidable achievement, which explodes the myth that the darker resonances of Pelléas werent explored until after World War II and which also makes both Karajans and Boulezs versions seem infinitely less original than when they first appeared. Given that Maguenats and Dufrannes performances were also much admired by Debussy, you cant help wondering whether its Trucs version, above all, that comes closest to the composers original intentions.
Trucs choice of material, meanwhile, may have been influenced by a need to establish a contrast with Coppolas abridgement, recorded by EMI in 1927. Broadly speaking, here we have a better selection of scenes Acts II to IV, this time, though the Yniold episodes have been cut albeit a lesser performance. Ones chief pleasure lies in the conducting. Coppola, though primarily associated with French music, was born in Milan, and theres an Italianate lyricism and a rhythmic buoyancy in his approach that is unquestionably appealing. The triple-time opening of Act II swirls off into a waltz. The great Act IV interlude is sweepingly passionate a prelude to a love scene rather than a brooding meditation on Arkels words on Gods lack of pity for humanity. The playing is pitched somewhere between Désormières transparency and Trucs density, though the singing is no more than decent, and at times not even that. Panzera, as Pelléas, ducks a couple of high notes and comes adrift on
others. Brothiers Mélisande is colourless beside both Joachim and Nespoulos, though this may be deliberate: that Mélisande is a cipher on whom the other characters project their fantasies is another, perfectly valid, interpretation of the work. Best by far here is Vanni-Marcouxs Golaud, insidious and snide rather than overtly depressive or violent.
Vocal problems also beset the sizeable chunk of Act III (the first two scenes uncut) that the great Albert Wolff recorded for Polydor in 1930. The lovers André Gaudin and Simone Berriao are unremarkable and again the great performance comes from the Golaud, José Beckmans, who also played Mephistopheles
in Wolffs famous recording of Faust. Here hes brutally declamatory and uncomprehending, a man with no imagination, bluff, even militaristic. Wolffs conducting, which has all of Trucs overt sensuality but none of his darkness, makes you wish hed recorded more of the work, though with a different cast.
Above all, however, the whole set is a testament to the astonishing diversity of interpretation that Debussys score admits, and also, perhaps, of the fact that no one performance can ever ultimately be considered definitive. Désormière and Truc are antithetical at every point, though both versions are equally valid, and equally cogent, and choice between the two is ultimately a question of your own individual view of the work. My personal preference is for Truc, though both performances make essential listening.