Debussy: Rodrigue et Chimène

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LABELS: Erato Musifrance
WORKS: Rodrigue et Chimène
PERFORMER: Donna Brown, Laurence Dale, Hélène Jossoud, Gilles Ragon, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, José van Dam, Jules Bastin; Orchestra & Chorus of Lyon Opera/Kent Nagano
CATALOGUE NO: 4509-98508-2 DDD
Composers can be their own severest critics. Look at Dukas, who published so little, or Boulez who is forever revising. Just because Debussy gave up on his pre-Pelléas opera doesn’t mean we will, and the unexpected survival of a near-complete manuscript is temptation enough. Richard Langham Smith takes credit for deciphering the notes; Edison Denisov orchestrated them and, as perpetuated here, the premiere run was an absorbing and often beautiful voyage of discovery.


Ostensibly, the story of El Cid is not Debussy’s line, and Catulle Mendès’s libretto inflates it with stock emotion. But without knowing, Mendès made the version Debussy needed: as with Pelléas, almost nothing happens, except for one sudden deed of violence. The first act’s high points are a chorus of threatened sexual harassment and an aria about enfeeblement. The work’s drama is mostly in the mind.


While the dramatic perspective remains external, the music successfully casts it against type in a fluent, understated style. It is surely better to listen to than see staged. Some of the shifting harmonies and even voice rhythms are completely characteristic. Denisov supplies ravishing string sounds, though not a Debussian mix of wind, and he has a weakness for brass solos. Still, the conducting is finely judged and the cast entirely idiomatic. Robert Maycock