Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande

COMPOSERS: Debussy
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Debussy
WORKS: Pelleas et Melisande
PERFORMER: Neill Archer, Alison Hagley, Donald Maxwell; Welsh National Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Pierre Boulez; dir. Peter Stein (WNO, 1992)
CATALOGUE NO: 073 030-9
Peter Stein’s WNO production evokes the Symbolist, early 20th-century vision of the Middle Ages as suggested in Maeterlinck’s play. Karl-Ernst Herrmann’s settings feature silhouetted, two-dimensional outline walls, steeply angled cliffs and use of curtains as cinematic wipes. Real doves fly from the castle tower and real sheep stray near Yniold, while the light/dark areas of the park and kissing shadows discussed by Pelleas and Melisande in their Act IV duet are delineated precisely by Jean Kalman’s cross-lighting.

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The cast responds in detail to a realistic kind of direction which has the merit of never trying to solve questions before the text and the music do. Alison Hagley manages Melisande’s mix of victim and flirt with deft looks and a fey physicality that is never coy. Neill Atelier’s handsome, student-like Pelleas (a slower-burning Lensky) is a careful study in the unheroic mode; Donald Maxwell gives a complicated but sympathetic Golaud, questing in vain for the authority and the answers which events deny him. Kenneth Cox, an elderly white Christ with a metal crown, suggests both impotent sympathy and selfish non-involvement in Arkel’s passivity.

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All are in finest voice and an extraordinary number of words come over. Pierre Boulez’s reading, more romantic than his 1969 DG recording, is lovingly handled by the Welsh players, notably the brass and wind. The sound — from which scene-change noise has been deliberately excluded — is most natural, as are the pictures which Stein, staying in very close to his able singing actors, directed himself. The second disc contains just Act V, a picture gallery of stills and a company trailer — poor. Mike Ashman