Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande review – Roth and Les Siècles make beguiling opera more miraculous than ever

·2 min read

Julien Behr/Vannina Santoni/Alexandre Duhamel/Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
(Harmonia Mundi)

Period instruments and French voices add an extra dimension to François-Xavier Roth’s recording

Pelléas is a one-off”, says François-Xavier Roth in the sleeve notes to his new recording, “The first exemplar of what opera was to become in the 20th and 21st centuries and of what it can no longer be”. As one of the turning points in the evolution of opera, Debussy’s masterpiece is already very well represented on disc, but Roth’s performance, which stems from a production at Opéra de Lille last year, differs from all its predecessors by having the period instruments of Les Siècles in the pit.

In an opera whose drama depends so much on the minutest nuances of the word-setting and the web of orchestral motifs underpinning it, the use of gut strings and turn-of-the-20th-century woodwind and brass adds an extra dimension to the expressive palette. The gains are obvious right from the opening, where the dark, slowly churning strings, playing without vibrato, conjure up the atmosphere of ambiguity and veiled menace that pervades the whole work, right through to the trickle of woodwind tears with which it ends.

Roth makes Debussy’s handling of orchestral colour seem more magical than ever, and even though his orchestra lacks the sheer tonal heft of a modern band, the great climaxes, such as Golaud’s explosion of rage in the third act, or Pelléas and Mélisande’s final meeting in the last scene of the fourth, seem more intense than ever, while the moments of quiet lyricism are wrapped in textures of extraordinary delicacy.

Because of Covid restrictions, the Lille staging directed by Daniel Jeanneteau was never performed before a live audience (though it was streamed), and this audio recording was able to achieve a studio-like clarity as a result. In an opera in which words matter so much, it’s a huge advantage having an entirely Francophone cast (though Debussy apparently favoured a non-French Mélisande, to emphasise her other-worldliness). Here every single syllable is distinct. Pelléas is a role that falls between conventional categories and here it’s the tenor Julien Behr, contrasting perfectly with Alexandre Duhamel’s baritone Golaud. Behr’s performance is quite staid, even in the more ecstatic moments, while Duhamel is never overbearing either; Golaud can never be the true “hero” of this opera, but in this recording he seems more sinned against than sinning, though Vannina Santoni’s velvety Mélisande seems utterly guileless too. The sepulchral Arkel is Jean Teitgen, the very fine Geneviève is Marie-Ange Todorovitch, while Golaud’s son Yniold is sung by a boy treble (Hadrien Joubert) rather than the usual adult soprano. But what matters most is the sense of a true ensemble performance, which makes Debussy’s endlessly beguiling score seem more miraculous than ever.

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