Thursday, January 14, 2010

Degout & Dessay: Pelleas et Melisande

On Virgin Classics DVD

Melisande … Natalie Dessay
Pelleas … Stephane Degout
Golaud … Laurent Naouri
Arkel … Phillip Ens
Genevieve … Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Yniold … Beate Ritter
Doctor, Shepherd … Tim Mirfin

I have to agree with the critics who found Laurent Pelly's production for Theater an der Wien of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande missing too many elements to be considered a great one. Still, that should not deter any fan of the opera (or the curious) from spending time with it as there remains PLENTY to rejoice about. The set is worth owning for the performers, if not the setting. Though Pelly seems to be bumbling in the dark at times, he still has found moments - and is blessed with a marvelous cast of singers/actors.

As blind old King Arkel, poor Phillip Ens seems to have been practically forgotten by Pelly for most of the opera, and spends the evening sweeping the floor with the hem of his too-long and heavy looking overcoat as he shuffles along in bad ol' generic "old man" business (think Tim Conway on the Carol Burnett Show). Vocally, the voice is often beautiful. His interaction with Melisande is touching (the line "If I were God, I would take pity on the hearts of men" delivered with genuine poignancy. Ens's Arkel dominates the final scene with great lyrical beauty of sound and seems to believe every word he was singing. So did I.

Laurent Naouri (Dessay's husband) gives a properly brooding and confused performance of Golaud that wavers between subtlety and over-the-top - which is not a bad choice for this complex, tortured character. The curtain drops too quickly after the murder of his brother, but it appears that this Golaud has a crazed smile that would have been a nice touch to see more of. His abuse and foiled attempt of raping Melisande is enough to make a viewer cringe. A good Golaud will always make me pity him for his life choices and uncontrollable temper, and Naouri does the job well.

Natalie Dessay's first essay of opera's most enigmatic heroine is a nice, solid one and the role sounds good in her voice. One of the world of operas finest actors, Dessay really gets under Melisande's skin, however, with choices I think she will reconsider if she keeps this role in her repertoire (and she definitely should!). Twice during the show she spins around like a whirling dervish, and at the second, adding a bit of goofiness to Melisande's plight as, clearly dizzy, she stumbles a bit before regaining more sure footing. Speaking of footing, as Pelleas and Melisande head toward the cave, there is a wonderful moment as he helps her down from a platform about 7 feet, by her simply stepping into his open hand as he then lowers her to the ground. It lasts but a few seconds, yet it is touches like these which add immeasurably to both the complexities and believability of the character.

Stephene Degout joins a long list of really marvelous Pelleas's, the hesitancy in his voice (and manner) of the first acts leaving plenty of room for the character's development. Vocally, he opens up thrillingly in Act IV, singing in some of Debussy's greatest music with great ardor and near vocal abandon. Physically, he and Dessay - who have most of the night restrained and hidden their passion, burst into a fiery embrace, her leaping up into his arms - the music freezing in silence along with the tableaux - just enough for the viewer to catch his breath and then MURDER! (I still can't fathom how any one calls this opera "boring.")

I'm a fan of Bertrand de Billy but I tend to like a better mixture of the Debussy's gauzy/haziness and full throttle playing then de Billy gives us here leading the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien. It is still rock solid, but (to my ears) felt a bit heavier, more Wagnerian if you will, than I typically want to hear this score.

The production is what I'd call "very theatrical" - a turntable revolving the set nicely to change the locales of the operas many scenes, sometimes to brilliant effect (e.g ., Golaud standing on the apron of the stage as the world seems to spin around him). It isn't a particularly attractive group of sets, but it doesn't take away from the fine work of the cast. Pelly is, I believe, on to something, but his work here feels unfinished, and as though not given enough thought. I'd like to see Pelly have another go at this, with the same cast, but as is, this DVD offers much to enjoy.

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