Andante – Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

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Complete Recording – Roger Désormière (1941)

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
Orchestre Symphonique
Roger Désormière

Abridgements and extracts

1. Georges Truc – Recorded 1928

Pelléas – Alfred Maguenat
Mélisande – Marthe Nespoulos
Golaud – Hector Dufranne
Geneviève – Claire Croiza
Arkel – Armand Narçon

Orchestre de l’Opéra
Georges Truc

2. Piero Coppola – Recorded 1927

Pelléas – Charles Panzéra
Mélisande – Yvonne Brothier
Golaud – Vanni-Marcoux
Arkel – Willy Tubiana

Grand Orchestre Symphonique du Gramophone
Piero Coppola

3. Gustave Cloez – Recorded 1928

Geneviève – Germaine Cernay

Orchestra (unspecified)
Gustave Cloez

4. Albert Wolff – Recorded 1930

Pelléas – André Gaudin
Mélisande – Simone Berriao
Golaud – José Beckmans

Orchestra (unspecified)
Albert Wolff

Reviewed by: Tim Ashley

Reviewed: April 2003
CD No: ANDANTE 3990 (4 CDs)

Hard on the heels of Andante’s encyclopaedic examination of Gounod’s Faust as it would have been heard in France in the inter-war years, comes this equally imposing set devoted to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Issued late last year to mark the centenary of the opera’s premiere, its aims are broadly similar. The first complete recording – Roger Désormière’s 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 Debussy’s 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 opera’s premiere. Mary Garden, who sang the first performance, coached Irène Joachim, Désormière’s Mélisande, in the role. Garden’s Golaud was Hector Dufranne, who can be heard in Georges Truc’s abridgement alongside the Pelléas of Alfred Maguenat. He first sang the role in 1914, in a performance that Debussy deeply admired. Truc’s 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 hasn’t quite given us the whole story. Thesingers on these discs were all native French speakers. Debussy’s 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 character’s 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. Teyte’s recordings of extracts (currently available on Naxos Historical – she sings both Mélisande and Geneviève) were made in London in 1947. Garden’s entire discography is often unfairly dismissed as being ’not very good.’ Teyte’s 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 Pelléas’s early and inter-war performance history is, in some respects, incomplete. Leaving such qualms aside, it should be said that Désormière’s 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 Désormière’s 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 isactually 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 Désormière’s 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. Debussy’s 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 Cooper’s live New York Met performance (also dating from 1941 and now on Naxos Historical), as well as in Boulez’s 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. Golaud’s 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 innocentsdestroyed by Golaud’s 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.

Jansen’s 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 Mélisande’s hair to the branches of the tree is wonderfully done – rapt and erotic, yet also supremely playful. Henri Etcheverry’s Golaud, meanwhile, is melancholic and reflective rather than temperamental. He sounds younger than most, which is perfectly feasible – despite Yniold’s presence and references in the text to Golaud’s grey hair, there’s 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 boy’s terrors with unnerving vividness. The recording comes largely undoctored, as is Andante’s policy, though the sound might make you jolt a bit, if you’re used to EMI Reference’s hefty re-mastering. The frequently voiced complaint that the orchestral sound, particularly the strings and wind, is thinly recorded doesn’t 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 Truc’s 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 Heger’s 1933 Der Rosenkavalier and Albert Wolff’s Faust. Truc’s 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 Mélisande’s bedroom window, Golaud’s 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 Désormière’s performance and might perplex many of the latter’s admirers. The orchestral sound is fuller, the recordingremarkably 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 Désormière’s forest, is world-weary and exhausted. Dufranne, trapped in Truc’s, is snappily frustrated, and Golaud’s tendency to irrationalistic violence is immediately established. The lovers, here, are knowing rather than innocent. Maguenat’s Pelléas, with a tenor-ish brightness of tone, is forthright and assertive, far removed from Jansens’s 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. Maguenat’s delivery of “Tu es ma prisonniere pour la nuit” carries with it overtones of a sexual threat that Jansen’s does not.

Golaud’s 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 opera’s meaning becomes infinitely more complex.

The rest of Truc’s 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. It’s a formidable achievement, which explodes the myth that the darker resonances of Pelléas weren’t explored until after World War II and which also makes both Karajan’s and Boulez’s versions seem infinitely less original than when they first appeared. Given that Maguenat’s and Dufranne’s performances were also much admired by Debussy, you can’t help wondering whether it’s Truc’s version, above all, that comes closest to the composer’s original intentions.

Truc’s choice of material, meanwhile, may have been influenced by a need to establish a contrast with Coppola’s 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. One’s chief pleasure lies in the conducting. Coppola, though primarily associated with French music, was born in Milan, and there’s 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 Arkel’s words on God’s lack of pity for humanity. The playing is pitched somewhere between Désormière’s transparency and Truc’s 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 onothers. Brothier’s 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-Marcoux’s 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 Mephistophelesin Wolff’s famous recording of Faust. Here he’s brutally declamatory and uncomprehending, a man with no imagination, bluff, even militaristic. Wolff’s conducting, which has all of Truc’s overt sensuality but none of his darkness, makes you wish he’d 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 Debussy’s 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.

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