Pelléas et Mélisande
Julien Behr, Vannina Santoni, Alexandre Duhamel, Marie-Ange Todorovitch, Jean Teitgen; Lille Opera Choir; Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
Harmonia Mundi HMM905352.54 150:15 mins (3 discs)
Using early 20th-century wind instruments, and with gut strings for the string section, this Pelléas takes us closer than usual to how Debussy himself would have expected his opera to sound. It’s like listening in black and white rather than colour. The music’s generally soft-toned orchestral landscape is both vivid and beautifully shaded; and in the fiercer passages such as Golaud’s brutalisation of Mélisande in Act IV, the strings deliver with a vehemence that might sound overdone on modern instruments, but doesn’t here. The downside is François-Xavier Roth’s insistence on minimal string vibrato, with almost none at all below mid-volume; the close-to-Baroque result doesn’t convince. Meanwhile the excellent cast sings in a generalised modern style; and their voices are balanced just a notch too far forward.
Those reservations apart, in every other respect this is a remarkable Pelléas – sensitively played and paced under Roth’s direction, and conveying like few other recordings the work’s unique and poignant emotional charge. Among superb singing from all concerned, Alexandre Duhamel’s Golaud comes across as an essentially decent man, driven to horrifying behaviour by a suspicious streak he can’t control, then devastated with remorse. Vannina Santoni’s appealing Mélisande is quite different from the minx-like portrayal that’s over-fashionable today, so that Arkel’s fondness for her feels real rather than deluded. Julien Behr’s personable Pelléas convincingly avoids wet-fish syndrome; and boy treble Hadrien Joubert sings Yniold, whose solo scene with the offstage passing flock of sheep is exquisitely done. A full libretto and translations are included.