DEBUSSY: PellÈas et Melissande

There is no indulging in overdramatic dynamics or in turning a French opera into an Italian opera as he did
with Carmen (Corelli/Price) nine years later. I’ve never heard his 1978 version;
but I doubt the elder Karajan had the same grip on the music as he did a quarter of
a century earlier. Still, I have some small doubt on the conductor’s insights. He
would probably have poured all possible scorn on a critic who would even have
dared to think, let alone make such a scurrilous suggestion. Yet, I have a feeling
he looked at his score while at the same time listening to the classic 1941 version
conducted by Roger Désormière—one of the glories of shellac recordings.
Differences in tempi are too small (usually Karajan is a few seconds quicker) to be
just a co-incidence. Karajan, of course, would have been silly to ignore
Désormière. When he conducted his version, Debussy had been dead for only 23
years and many present at the recording sessions knew very well what the
composer and first conductor (André Messager) had in mind.

Apart from Karajan’s exemplary conducting, this recording has other advantages
as well. The great surprise is Dame Elisabeth: warmth, youth, spleen. You name it
and she has it. This set is worth purchasing alone for the lady’s perfect portrait.
And as it was a RAI production husband Legge couldn’t tamper with his wife’s
interpretation too much (insofar as Karajan would have allowed it). There is
nothing artificial in her singing in a role that on its own would already invite
mannerism. Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger is a worthy Pelléas, happily recorded
during his heyday. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always thought a tenor voice
better suited Pelléas than the usual French bariton-martin. Debussy chose Jean
Périer for the première, indeed a high baritone, though that was probably more for
his histrionic capacities. In the recording under review nobody will wonder who is
singing: is it Golaud or Pelléas? Haefliger has a sweet but still a manly sound; and
his French style is admirable. So is Mr. Roux’s Golaud. He is one of the very best
singers in this role as should be expected from someone who claimed the role for a
decade and who has at least three other recorded versions. I was surprised, too, at
the impact of Mario Petri’s weightier than usual Arkel. Yet, he too succeeds in
bringing the deep sorrows of the old king into being. After all Petri was a fine Don
Giovanni and he never belonged to the Italian school of stand and deliver. Maybe
some American and surely most British ears will find Christine Gayaud’s
Geneviève too fluttery but this is a matter of personal taste. Graziella Sciutti also
brings more beauty of voice than we often get as Yniold and she is almost as good
as Leila Ben Sedira who owned the role.

All in all, if you want a budget version, this is the one to go for as it is on two CDs
only. You may even get the best sung and conducted version of them all.
Personally, and with some hesitation, I think this version has a small edge over the
Désormière version because I prefer more colour in the voices than the older
conductor had at his disposal. The Karajan version, however, and this may clinch
your decision, has no libretto and for those less versed in French this can be a
drawback. There is only a track list (with a hideous spelling mistake) and once
more I’m struck by the negligence of the producing Italian company. Most
collectors want to know the names of the small part singers as well but if you’d
look at the sleeve note you would never know there is a ‘médecin’ and a ‘berger’
as well singing some lines. I’ve no idea who the ‘berger’ is but Franco Calabrese
sings the role of the doctor.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Melissande
product_title=Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Melissande
product_by=Ernst Haefliger (Pelléas), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Melissande), Michel Roux (Golaud), Mario Petri (Arkel), Christiane Gayraud (Geneviève), Graziella Sciutti (Yniold), Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Roma della RAI conducted by Herbert von Karajan
Original recording RAI Roma 12/1954
product_id=Urania 267 [2CDs]