Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pelléas et Mélisande: from Natalie with Love

Pelléas et Mélisande is one of those delicate operas; it requires a special care and skills from the director to handle a tricky balance between the dramatic action and a perpetual interplay of symbols with music. If you surf on its libretto only, you are almost guaranteed to get a pretentious waves of boredom.

This opera is a touch of genius. Like most of his contemporaries, Claude Debussy loved Wagner but not to the point that it would impede his own creativity. His music and his dramatic instincts are maybe close to what Wagner did in Parsifal, but Debussy humanized those dramatic instincts by making them more intimate. The collateral effect --that in our days became the most significant part of Debussy's genius-- is that his music tickles our subconsciousness in a very different way from what we usually feel when listening to Wagner. 

What about this DVD? In one line, it is ruined by Laurent Pelly's staging but beatified by a superb Natalie Dessay as Mélisande

If you're not into symbolism or more "adult"-like operas, or if you're still too much attached to Lucia, Traviata..., then it's very likely that you'll be bored by Pelléas. If you'd like to give it a try anyway, then this DVD may be a good starting point. It is descriptive and it's very well sung.

If, instead, you're already well acquainted with this opera, and you look for an extra-quality that would enrich your contact with this sublime music, then you're in for a big upset: Laurent Pelly simply butchered Debussy.

I seriously wonder if he read any paper or a letter Debussy wrote about his opera. Pelly is a talented director, but his hyper-productive style and his lack of in-depth work on one specific opera is clearly incompatible with Pelléas et Mélisande. He almost totally evacuated the symbolism, made the story-line stuck to the basic libretto -- the approach that works well with Offenbach, but not with Debussy.

As a result his  Pelléas et Mélisande is not only off the target but it ruins the score. It's as illustrative as possible, with no space left to a spectator to process the images and let them float on music.  A good/successful  production of Pelléas should invite, prepare and expose the audience to the effects of Debussy's music. Here,  the music originated in the pit gets trapped on the Pelly's stage and very little reaches the spectator.
Much more positive is the rest of this production. Bertrand de Billy did a very good job by smoothly conducting the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien through a refined reading of the score. It occasionally gets too fast for my liking, but those few moments don't change an overall positive impression.

Saving the best for last -- the singers/actors. Natalie Dessay is here in her arguably best role ever. Her voice is an excellent fit to Mélisande, and she has that angelic lightness that makes you want to hug her. She's perfectly understandable (which isn't easy even for French sopranos), and her charming presence is an asset to her good acting skills. Golaud is very well sung and acted by Natalie's husband, Laurent Naouri. Finally, Stéphane Degout completes the trio of amazing singers: his voice and his physique are the ideal match for Pelléas -- something you hardly ever see in any production of this opera. He proves once again that he's one of the world's best among the singers of his generation. A tiny remark though is that his baritone is sometimes too timbred, and sounds too mature, too stern for Pelléas.

 On the scale 1-5 :

PELLEAS - Stéphane Degout  4-5
MELISANDE - Nathalie Dessay  5+
GOLAUD - Laurent Naouri 4-5
ARKEL - Phillip Ens 4
GENEVIEVE - Marie-Nicole Lemieux 4

Laurent Pelly's production  1

Bertrand de Billy 4

   Overall impression:  2-3  

Here is one excerpt I found on YT  [posted by DessayBestSingerII]. Enjoy :)

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