Debussy
Pelléas et Mélisande – Opera in five acts
Pelléas – Camille Maurane
Mélisande – Erna Spoorenberg
Golaud – George London
Arkel – Guus Hoekman
Geneviève – Josephine Veasey
Yniold – Rosine Brédy
The Doctor – John Shirley-Quirk
A Shepherd – Gregore Kubrack

Choeur de Grand Théâtre de Genève

L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Ernest Ansermet


Recorded August 1964 in the Grand Theatre, Geneva
CD No: DECCA 473 351-2 (2 CDs)
Duration:
Reviewed: October 2003
First of all, I have to confess to a great personal fondness for this recording. It was the performance through which, as a teenager, I came to know and love Debussy’s opera and time has not, by and large, dimmed my affection for it, though it has made me more aware, perhaps, of its flaws. It is, of course, critically fashionable to downgrade it somewhat.
Made in Geneva in 1964, it was Ansermet’s second recording of the opera (his first, also for Decca, dates from 1952), and it has become a commonplace to say that the remake is inferior to the original. Neither version, in fact, has been given a particularly high profile of late, as critical focus tends to concentrate either on Roger Désormière’s 1941 version (most recently re-issued by Andante) or on the later achievements of Boulez and Karajan.
Désormière’s recording, still considered definitive in some quarters, reinforces the common view of Pelléas as an inherently muted work – symbolist, shadowy, a thing of hints and whispers. Boulez and Karajan, meanwhile, are commonly perceived as offering ’groundbreaking’ alternatives, with Boulez raising the emotional pitch to a level of stridency, and Karajan firmly concentrating on the opera’s debt to Wagner in general, and Parsifal in particular, in a way that some Debussy admirers might prefer to gloss over. Ansermet’s versions – neither of them deemed ’definitive’ or ’groundbreaking’ – have tended to slip from view, a bit, as a result.
Yet we also need to acknowledge that our understanding of Pelléas’s performance and recording history is shifting, somewhat. The first commercial issue of Emil Cooper’s 1941 Met performance (on Naxos Historical) reveals Karajan’s approach to be less original than initially thought. Andante, meanwhile, has re-issued Georges Truc’s 1928 abridgement in tandem with Désormière’s performance, which necessitates a further shift in perception. Truc, far from being muted, is exceptionally ’in-your-face’, pre-empting both Boulez’s emotional intensity and Karajan’s Wagnerian weight. In addition, Truc offers a performance unique in its own right, both in its disturbing sexual flagrancy and also in its deployment of a number of singers whose interpretations Debussy endorsed in his lifetime.
Ansermet’s 1964 recording consequently needs to be re-evaluated in the context of a pattern of Pelléas interpretation that is proving more complex than previously thought. It was made at a time, of course, when the Désormière-type approach was very much the norm and Truc was largely forgotten. That Ansermet is closer, in many respects, to the latter may largely have been responsible for the recording drawing something of a critical blank in its day. This is, first and foremost, an inherently sexual interpretation, albeit one that is less dark than Truc’s. The latter’s emphasis on sadomasochism (most obvious in the scene in which Pelléas ties Mélisande by her hair to a tree) finds no equivalent in Ansermet, where the erotics are more about patterns of tension, frustration and release.
Much of Ansermet’s performance relies, as one might expect, on his ability to blend an exact judgement of sonority with a scrupulous sense of dramatic pace. We’re reminded throughout that the filigree flute and oboe writing that tracks Pelléas, Mélisande and Yniold, designates vulnerability, while the strings that surround Golaud, Arkel and Geneviève indicate some form of entrapment, whether emotional or physical. Sound, throughout, is mirrored perfectly with sense. When Pelléas states, during the love scene, that “the ice has been broken with hot irons”, the vast yet quiet underlying string chord indicates not only the liquefying of emotion in the verbal image, but also the inherent danger in which the lovers find themselves, as Golaud’s low, rasping cellos and basses soon begin to hem them in.
The sexual tensions in the performance are palpable, from the moment those telling pizzicato throbs bring Pelléas and Mélisande face to face for the first time in the final scene of the first act. The climactic Act IV love scene is also very much a sex scene, a frenzied struggle for physical consummation, a fact glossed over in some performances, though verbally indicated in Maeterlinck’s text, where we find the image of falling stars, a standard metaphor for ejaculation at the time the play was written.
Elsewhere, the emotional and sexual configurations are realised with Ansermet’s usual vivid scrupulousness. The scene between Golaud and Yniold is shocking in its devastation of uncomprehending childhood innocence by adult sexuality out of control. Ansermet shades Geneviève’s music, meanwhile, towards a pained nostalgia, flooded with memories of opportunities lost and a life in which survival in the claustrophobic world of Allemonde has been purchased at the price of emotional desiccation. All this is accomplished without a single fracturing of the music’s ebb and flow, while the score’s much-discussed Wagnerisms are everywhere audible without being once over obvious.
This is one of the great examples of Debussy conducting to be preserved in sound. The playing, from the orchestra that Ansermet himself founded in 1918, can only be described as astonishing.
Yet when we turn to both the singing and the recording itself, we find a number of elements that now prove troubling. The unevenness of the casting has become more apparent with time, the principal problem being George London’s Golaud. That London could be a great artist is amply born out by his surviving recordings, many of them live, as Wotan, Scarpia, Mandryka and Onegin, though Golaud in some respects eludes him. The dark, raw sound certainly suits a man who is very much a frustrated warrior – a man “made for iron and blood” as he puts it. You can’t escape the fact, however, that sections of the role lie too high, that his vocal control slips when singing softly and that the recording at times catches a heavy vibrato that you don’t notice elsewhere. Dramatically, he’s very much uncomprehending, bluff and violent, though you also miss the sense of emotional extremism, of feelings going violently out of control. Compare him with Lawrence Tibbett (for Cooper) and you realise just how much of the necessary psychotic quality is missing.
Familiarity with other recordings also points up the flaws in Camille Maurane’s Pelléas. Occasional intimations of a wavering vibrato undercut the predominantly boyish quality of his voice, and he lacks both the dreaminess of Jacques Jansen (for Désormière) and the sexual awareness of Alfred Maguenat (for Truc). Jansen and Maguenat’s performances are essentially antithetical and Maurane, veering towards neither, ends up as something of a cipher.
The other principals fare infinitely better, however. Erna Spoorenberg is an outstanding Mélisande, with an extraordinarily sensual tone and a remarkable ability to allow each phrase to sound at once both totally innocent, yet incredibly knowing. This rare quality allows her to preserve the character’s essential ambivalence to the end – the fact that her actual motivation remains as much a mystery to us as to the other characters. You’re also acutely aware, however, that this is essentially also a woman with a past. Her whole performance seems haunted by that line in the first scene, often thrown away, that there has been another ’he’ in Mélisande’s life before she met Golaud and that she is not, by any means, naïve.
The young Josephine Veasey sings Geneviève. She’s not quite Claire Croiza (the definitive performance, again for Truc), though she’s wonderfully impressive at conveying the pervasive sadness that haunts Geneviève’s life. She sounds tellingly like Spoorenberg at times, as if Genevieve were the woman Mélisande might ultimately have become had she survived.
The Dutch bass Guus Hoekman, meanwhile, is the most glorious Arkel imaginable, compassionate and wise, his voice exceptionally beautiful, his performance guaranteed to move you to tears, both in his reflections on God’s absence of pity for humanity and in the opera’s closing pages.
The recording itself, however, also leaves something to be desired. The 60s were Decca’s ’sonicstage’ era, the process most famously exemplified in John Culshaw’s engineering of Solti’s Ring and Tristan und Isolde. No sound-engineer is credited in this instance, though what we have here is an imperfectly realised ’production number’. Golaud’s voice criss-crosses from left to right and back and drifts in an out of focus when he gets lost in the forest. Echo effects are added when he and Pelléas descend to the vaults of Allemonde. Elsewhere, however, more conventional vocal placing is observed, and the orchestra is beautifully captured. The re-mastering, though by and large excellent, doesn’t obliterate the inconsistency, though the voices have been placed slightly further back than on the original vinyl issue.
Admirers of both Ansermet and the work need not hold back, though anyone coming to Pelléas for the first time by way of this set should be warned that the recording is accompanied only by the skimpiest of synopses and that you have to download the libretto and the rest of the material from the Decca website. That, of course, won’t be a problem for anyone reading this review – but it’s an utter pain for anyone who can’t connect to the Internet.

 

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