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
LOrchestre de la Suisse Romande
Recorded August 1964 in the Grand Theatre, Geneva
CD No: DECCA 473 351-2 (2 CDs) Duration: Reviewed: October 2003
Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande Ansermet (Decca)
Reviewed by Tim Ashley
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 Debussys 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 Ansermets 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 Désormières 1941 version (most recently re-issued by Andante) or on the later achievements of Boulez and Karajan.
Désormières 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 operas debt to Wagner in general, and Parsifal in particular, in a way that some Debussy admirers might prefer to gloss over. Ansermets 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 Pelléass performance and recording history is shifting, somewhat. The first commercial issue of Emil Coopers 1941 Met performance (on Naxos Historical) reveals Karajans approach to be less original than initially thought. Andante, meanwhile, has re-issued Georges Trucs 1928 abridgement in tandem with Désormières performance, which necessitates a further shift in perception. Truc, far from being muted, is exceptionally in-your-face, pre-empting both Boulezs emotional intensity and Karajans 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.
Ansermets 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 Trucs. The latters 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 Ansermets performance relies, as one might expect, on his ability to blend an exact judgement of sonority with a scrupulous sense of dramatic pace. Were 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 Golauds 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 Maeterlincks 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 Ansermets 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 Genevièves 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 musics ebb and flow, while the scores 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 Londons 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 cant 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 dont notice elsewhere. Dramatically, hes 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 Mauranes 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 Maguenats 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 characters essential ambivalence to the end the fact that her actual motivation remains as much a mystery to us as to the other characters. Youre 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 Mélisandes life before she met Golaud and that she is not, by any means, naïve.
The young Josephine Veasey sings Geneviève. Shes not quite Claire Croiza (the definitive performance, again for Truc), though shes wonderfully impressive at conveying the pervasive sadness that haunts Genevièves 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 Gods absence of pity for humanity and in the operas closing pages.
The recording itself, however, also leaves something to be desired. The 60s were Deccas sonicstage era, the process most famously exemplified in John Culshaws engineering of Soltis Ring and Tristan und Isolde. No sound-engineer is credited in this instance, though what we have here is an imperfectly realised production number. Golauds 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, doesnt 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, wont be a problem for anyone reading this review but its an utter pain for anyone who cant connect to the Internet.