By a very peculiar irony, the public which demands "something new" is the very same as that which is bewildered and mocking each time someone tries to get them out of their comfortable habits and routines...It may seem incomprehensible, but one must never forget that a work of art, an attempt at beauty, almost always appears as a personal offence to many people.'
Not the words of a contemporary composer yesterday, but Claude Debussy a century ago, writing a note for the first performance of his opera "Pelléas et Mélisande" in April 1902. But Debussy himself was trying to escape something that haunted him, and as he saw it, the whole of French opera: the influence of Wagner.
Debussy had been a passionate Wagnerite, visiting Bayreuth repeatedly in what he himself called a 'pilgrimage'; yet he recognised that the Wagnerian formulas worked only for Wagner, that what was needed was an 'after Wagner', an escape from "this Neo-Wagnerian school where French genius has sunk to counterfeit 'Wotans' in half boots and 'Tristans' in velvet jackets".
Yet he was still under the spell of Wagner's "Parsifal", where the music seemed to him to be on a much more human scale, with a transparency of orchestration that he really admired: "an orchestral colour which is illuminated from behind".
One of the reasons Bernard Haitink's "Pelléas" is such a success is exactly that late-Wagnerian quality he coaxes from the French National Orchestra, who play quite beautifully for him...and despite the fact that this was made from live performances for Radio France, there's a delicious feeling of air around the recording. It all feels effortlessly natural, which is exactly what Debussy was trying to achieve with his writing, with everything flowing from the accents, rhythms and flexibility of the French language.
If it concerns you that only one of the key roles is sung by a native French speaker, you needn't worry: Anne Sofie von Otter and Wolfgang Holzmair are impressively fluent. In fact Holzmair's Pelléas is perfect, full of youthful ardour, falling for the beautiful Mélisande despite the intimidating presence of his older brother, her husband Golaud.
Here Pelléas's naïve romanticism is touching, and believable...but I had a slight reservation about Otter's Mélisande, despite the beauty of the singing. Is she just a touch too knowing for the mysterious girl, found weeping beside a forest fountain by Golaud? The flirtatious games she plays with Pelléas, the tossing of her wedding ring, the letting down of her golden tresses from the window - there's an innocence missing from Otter's portrayal...or maybe we're meant to feel that she's been here before.
Some listeners are going to find Laurent Naouri's Golaud too light, but for me he's one of the best things about the recording: a Golaud who reacts in an understandably human way to Mélisande's missing ring, or to catching the youngsters in a compromising situation. It's more believable that he doesn't erupt immediately; here we have a Golaud who's slow to anger, but when he does finally explode with catastrophic rage it's all the more frightening for his former restraint.
But, for all the fine singing, it's the extraordinary score that haunts you after you've heard this recording; the transparency, the limpid beauty of the watery imagery, the velvet shade and stifling darkness, and the glorious transition from the oppressive gloom of the dungeons to the outside world. The balance between light and darkness, the tension between joy and melancholy, are brilliantly realised by Debussy, by Haitink, and by the orchestra. What a wonderful recording to be offered for "Pelléas et Mélisande"s 100th birthday.
Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3 --John Armstrong
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