This live BBC broadcast of Claude Debussy's ground-breaking opera Pelléas and Mélisande was recorded at the Coliseum in 1981. The unique performance is now available on CD for the first time, as part of Chandos Opera in English historical series, performed by the English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Mark Elder, with the soloists Neil Howlett, Eilene Hannon, and Robert Dean playing out the tragic love triangle. It is not so much the extremity of emotions in opera that moves us, but their intensity. And intense emotion does not need to be loud, or dramatic. It can be quiet, deep, and profound, as in this operatic masterpiece, based on Maeterlincks symbolist drama. With its simple setting of every day words, and slow-burning passion, the opera emerged in the early twentieth century as the very antithesis to the Wagnerian style. In the words of Debussy himself: I imagine a kind of drama quite different from Wagners in which music would begin where the words are powerless as an expressive force. Music is made for the inexpressible. Debussy purposely avoided elaborate and lyrical language, and wrote in the simplest prose. In fact, most of the characters speak to one another in plain speech, and everything they say is, on the surface, completely transparent. But the waters run deep, and as questions bring about either the wrong reply or no reply at all, the simple language only deepens the obscurity of what is actually being said. The plot is based on a tragic love triangle. Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her back to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. Here Mélisande becomes increasingly attached to Golauds half-brother, Pelléas, arousing Golauds jealousy. Golaud goes to excessive lengths to find out the truth about the relationship and Pelléas eventually decides to leave the castle, but he arranges to meet Mélisande one last time and the two finally confess their love for each other. Golaud, who has been eavesdropping, rushes out and kills Pelléas. Not long after, having given birth to a daughter, and with Golaud still begging her to tell him the truth, Mélisande dies.
Taken from a 1981 BBC tape, this is a fine example of ENO at one of its peaks, with the orchestra playing with passion and precision for Mark Elder and a cast of fine singers using Hugh Macdonald's excellent translation. From the start, Elder creates an atmosphere of darkness, mystery and impending tragedy. As for the singing, there's John Tomlinson in his prime as King Arkel, commanding and sinister; Robert Dean as Pelleas, a fine piece of operatic portraiture; and Eileen Hannan as the tiresome Melisande,although she becomes flesh and blood in the love scenes.***** --Sunday Telegraph,08/01/12
Definitely recommended for Anglophone listeners because its good, for once, to be able to absorb every word (and nuance) of this complex opera as they slip by. --Gramophone,Mar'12
Having experienced this performance in the theatre, I was glad to have made its reacquaintance in this good-for-its-age transfer of a BBC Radio 3 recording. --IRR,Feb'12
If Pelleas in English appeals, this recording fits the bill. Performance*** Recording*** --BBC Music Magazine,Mar'12