Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Debussy
LABELS: TDK
ALBUM TITLE: Debussy
WORKS: Pelléas et Mélisande
PERFORMER: sabel Rey, Rodney Gilfry, Michael Volle, Cornelia Kallisch, Lászlo Polgár; Zürich Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst; dir. Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Zurich, 2004)
CATALOGUE NO: DVWW-OPPEM (NTSC system; dts 5.0; 16:9 anamorphic)
Is this luminously beautiful score the guttering flame of Wagnerian Romanticism or the gateway to modern music? Do we view it as coherent drama or ambivalent emotional allegory? Is its heroine waif-like innocent, focus of others’ desires, or a sexually disruptive fausse-naïve? Pelléas presents a huge challenge to both conductor and producer, and Welser-Möst is this Zurich staging’s greatest strength – a measured, clear, coolly poetic reading which like Boulez brings out the score’s Wagnerian qualities, but rather less passionately.

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This cool quality is matched in Rolf Glittenberg’s semi-abstract sets, all fibrous grey walls and white fluted surfaces banked with snow, but still more so in the emotional detachment of Sven-Eric Bechtoff’s production, which as the booklet says ‘keeps the spectators at bay’. He doubles his singers with dummies, propped up, or trundled interminably around in wheelchairs, constantly addressed by other characters while the singer is doing something else. This works best at Melisande’s death, but by then it’s a bore.

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A shame, because this is a fine singer-actor cast; Zurich regulars Kallisch and Polgar, superb basso cantante, are ideal as Genevieve and Arkel, Volle a gentler Golaud than usual and Gilfry a lyrical, ardent Pelléas. Only Rey seems a rather earthbound Mélisande, insufficiently ethereal. Of the four DVDs available I’d place this third, ahead of the turgid Lyons production but less warmly dramatic than Glyndebourne’s, and above all Boulez’s deeply idiomatic DG version with WNO’s fresh young voices, atmospherically staged by Peter Stein. Michael Scott Rohan