Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande is the new Deutsche Grammophon release of the 1992 performance by the Welsh National Opera, conducted by Pierre Boulez with Stage Production and Design by Peter Stein.
Briefly, Pelleas et Melisande is a tragic opera of two half brothers, Pelleas and Golaud, who are in love with the same mysterious woman - Melisande. Golaud, who first meets and marries Melisande, introduces her to his half brother Pelleas - the two fall in love and ultimately meet tragic and untimely deaths; Pelleas by his brother's hand and Melisande, mysteriously. This is the opera in a nutshell though the character development throughout this production is considerably more extensive.
Before going into the detail of what is most enjoyable about this DVD lets first get what is not so enjoyable out of the way. When sitting to watch an opera on DVD you want to enjoy the feeling of being there, as if you were a part of the audience, but with a better seat, seeing the orchestra perform, the conductor conduct and hearing the applause of the actual viewers.
This DVD is presented without an audience in attendance, and if it was in attendance, it didn't express approval or disaproval or display any emotional reaction to the performances. The absence of an audience seemed to detract from the "live" feeling one might expect upon viewing a DVD, as opposed to simply listening to it on a studio recorded CD. Second, in scenes where the music is transitional, beautifully scored by Debussy, the camera merely pans through the musical score. This is where you might expect to see live shots of the orchestra working its way through a marvelous score. And finally, it's hard to understand why DG put this particular opera on two discs. It doesn't seem to require two discs, so why force the viewers out of their chairs to load the final Act? Is it merely to justify a $39.99 price for a two disc set?
Now, the good stuff: the cast was superb. Soprano Alison Hagley as Melisande and Tenor Neil Archer as Pelleas were outstanding. They were believable in their roles. Both were young and attractive, and each sung the beautiful Debussy score with heartfelt emotion and sincerity. The Act III scene of Pelleas stroking Melisande's hair from the balcony window was wonderfully done and the director was able to achieve a beautiful level of innocent eroticism by filming it as it was. Donald Maxwell as Golaud was exceptional, with a clear strong baritone sound and a wonderful job conveying the tortured emotions of his character, including an Otello-like breakdown. Also in wonderful form was bass Kenneth Cox as King Arkel, his deep lush sound portrayed the aging King with grace. All other principles and supports did a fine job and contributed to a very well done overall performance.
The sets by Karl-Ernst Herrmann were interesting, providing the viewer with a non-descript time (seems to be what everybody is doing these days) with a dark modernistic stage offset by striking silver blue and black costumes. Only King Arkel and Melisande in Act II wore white, which played off well against the otherwise dull backdrop. Throughout the performance the viewer will find oneself drawn into the opera smoothly as it moves along from scene to scene, emotion to emotion, thanks to deft direction and believable performances by a very talented cast. Though I would not recommend this as a `date' opera, or the first opera you watch, it is a beautiful and thoughtful piece that at times rises to hypnotic. On a recent internet site P&M won first prize as favorite opera to sleep to. Everybody agreed it had great depth and a powerful score.
Pelleas et Melisande is very Wagneresque, in a Parsifal kind of way (listen to the entrance music of King Arkel and you will be immediately taken back to the scene of Gurnemanz and Parsifal entering the Hall in Act I of Parsifal), accompanied with long sweeping melodic melodies with very little `action' on the stage. The orchestra seems to carry all of the meaning and emotion of the piece, like a tone poem. Debussy described it as creating a message where the music substitutes for dialogue. This is a great way to approach this piece when you view and listen to it. As noted, each Act is separated by transitional music, giving the piece the feel of one continuous line of music. Maybe this is why the producer opted for no audience and no breaks between the five Acts.
Pelleas et Melisande has taken its lumps over the years and clearly may not be everybody's favorite, requiring more of an acquired taste and time before being understood for its more subtle genius. But there is no denying that in the right hands and with the right production team this opera can be a powerful piece of music with strong and deliberate emotions carrying you from the beginning when the curtain rises to the tragic conclusion. I highly recommend. (J.G.)