I approached this Claudio Abbado-led performance of Claude Debussy's only opera "Pelleas et Melisande" prejudiced by certain negative comments about the singing. Happily, I thought the singing was for the most part excellent and it is strengthened by some truly great orchestral playing and sound that is miraculous (audiophile alert - you will want to hear this disc even if you don't like Pelleas or Debussy or whatever - trust me). In short, this is simply a great recording of a work that is difficult for performers and listeners alike.
"Pelleas et Melisande" is a difficult opera because Debussy uses little repetition and few obvious melodic hooks. There are "leitmotifs" (to summarize, short melodic capsules often associated with events, characters or ideas) but they rise to prominence briefly and then are buried in the texture when they return. It takes place in a magic garden, a neurasthenic princess at the center of a romantic triangle. The final scene, a slipping off into the abyss, is an astounding conception that is unique and is performed just beautifully by Abbado and his orchestra.
Each of the three leads is in my opinion very good. The best of them is Jose van Dam as Golaud, who has never sounded better. Francois Le Roux is a strong Pelleas, with a light tenor. As Melisande, Maria Ewing takes a more dramatic approach, which emphasizes diction and drama rather than pure musicality. That said, she can be vocally very pure, for example in her deathbed scene in Act V (disc 2, track 16). The accompanying parts are weaker and are probably the only downside of this CD. Christa Ludwig, as Genevieve, is one of the great opera singers ever, but at age 54, she no longer had the vocal precision and range to shine. I also found bass Jean-Philippe Courtis to be inexpressive and unable to navigate the notes flexibly in the role of Arkel. But generally, the singing is strong.
I have always been a fan of Claudio Abbado's approach to Debussy and Ravel but this is a new highlight for the esteemed conductor in this repertory. You wouldn't think the Vienna Philharmonic could play this repertory well, but they play with utmost delicacy and a pervasive beauty of tone. I'd describe this is velvety Debussy rather than precise Debussy. As I enthused above, the recording sonics are just remarkable, marking exceptional work by the DG engineers.
I very, very much enjoyed this release.