DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande – London Sym. Orch./ Simon Rattle – LSO Live

There aren’t that many readings of Pelléas on the market, so this surround version captures a lot of due attention!

DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande – Christian Gerhaher (Pelléas)/ Magdalena Kožená (Mélisande)/ Bernarda Fink (Geneviève)/ Franz-Josef Selig (Arkel)/ Gerald Finley (Golaud)/ Elias Mädler (Yniold)/ Joshua Bloom ((Shepherd/Doctor)/ London Sym. Orch./ Simon Rattle – LSO Live multichannel SACD (3 discs) + Blu-ray Audio LSO0790, 165 minutes [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, based on the Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck, has long been regarded as one of the landmarks of twentieth century music even though it also goes far in the very redefinition of opera. The curious love triangle, involving Prince Golaud (who finds the lost Mélisande in the woods and marries her), and his half-brother Pelléas (whom Mélisande will come to love, for some reason not exactly clear), is not so much a plot as a series of emotional scenes that are in many ways self-contained. One could almost excise them and give them separately with little loss of continuity. You cannot really imagine a piece like Schoenberg’s Ewartung without Pelléas et Mélisande.

The composer, who had been fascinated—like so many others at the time—with the music of Wagner, finally turned against him and his whole ethic of music-dominated drama, though honestly it is difficult to say that Debussy escaped this in his opera. The music, despite the stringing together of the dreamlike states that serve as scenes, still dominates, and even though his ideal was to obliviate any “big scenes”, Pelléas et Mélisande certainly has them. Stylistically the influence of Wagner is ever-present in every bar, though cloaked with the genius of Debussy’s lush orchestration and static dramatic content. The work is, simply from an aural point of view, a stunning achievement.

On record, many still swear by the 1941 effort with Roger Desormiere at the helm, the first complete recording of the opera, but I am not all that convinced that it is so good as to render more modern efforts superfluous. I am fond of the 1992 Abbado for its clarity, even though I don’t think the late conductor was that attuned to the Debussy Idiom (Maria Ewing is outstanding in that issue, though), and if I had to lay bets it would probably be on the hothouse Karajan recording, still easily available. He studied the work for a long time and renders an utterly convincing interpretation, along with the amazing singing of Frederica von Stade.

But now Rattle rolls around, and he also proves himself a worthy entrant into the Pelléas et Mélisande sweepstakes. This is the first multichannel version of the work, and as such deserves some attention, but the performance is also noteworthy. LSO Live has continually gotten better at this since their first early recordings, and this Barbican issue is quite fine from a purely audio standpoint. Cast-wise, Gerald Finley outdoes himself here, and while Magdalena Kozena isn’t on Frederica von Stade’s level, she equals Ewing with Abbado (and most others), and turns in a fine reading in a work I am a little surprised to hear her take on. Christian Gerhaher’s Pelléas is a nice portrayal.

Sound-wise, as I said, this is the first surround sound effort, and it is truly outstanding. This is a definite keeper, even if you will want to add one or more of the other magnificent readings out there, especially Karajan—there are no bad recordings of this work.

—Steven Ritter

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