Debussy: The Fall of the House of Usher; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Jeux

COMPOSERS: Debussy
LABELS: Capriccio
ALBUM TITLE: Debussy
WORKS: The Fall of the House of Usher; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Jeux
PERFORMER: Scott Hendricks, Steven McRae, Nicholas Cavallier, Johannes Stepanek, John Graham-Hall, Katia Pellegrino, Leanne Benjamin; Vienna SO/Lawrence Foster; dir. Phyllida Lloyd, chor. Kim Brandtsrup (Bregenz, 2005)
CATALOGUE NO: 93517 (NTSC system; Dolby 5.1; 16:9 picture format)
Debussy had trouble with opera projects, and his dramatisation of Poe’s short story remained a mass of sketches at his death. It was first reconstructed in 1976, and recorded by Georges Prêtre, but pages given away by Debussy’s widow Emma have since been recovered and used by Robert Orledge in his new reconstruction, linked by a fair amount of well-informed pastiche. The result is quite convincing, but extremely short, and leaves Madeline Usher an unseen presence.

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Despite her ENO Ring debacle, Phyllida Lloyd remains an impressive producer, and her Bregenz Festival staging tries to fill the gaps, and to that end Kim Brandstrup’s balletic prologue illustrates the characters’ earlier relationships, centering on Leanne Benjamin’s tormented Madeline. Unfortunately this uses Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, whose sunlit atmosphere meshes poorly with the Gothic setting; Jeux, with its uneasy sexual undertones, sits a little better, but the contrast as we encounter Usher proper is palpable – far darker, more fiercely dramatic music, effectively conducted by Lawrence Foster.

Singers step into the danced roles to good effect. Scott Hendricks’s febrile Roderick Usher expands impressively on Steven McRae’s, likewise Nicholas Cavallier as the hapless Friend who loves both brother and sister; but Katia Pellegrino’s beautiful disembodied voice can’t rival Leanne Benjamin. The Doctor, a vampiric figure this version blames for Madeline’s premature burial, is keenly sung by ENO stalwart John Graham-Hall, but needs more of the Hammer atmosphere captured in Hudson’s claustrophobically shifting glasshouse setting.

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Reservations (and duff subtitles) apart, this is much more than a Debussyian curio, a strikingly stageworthy vindication of the score. Michael Scott Rohan