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Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Melissande
21 Jan 2007

DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Melissande

I was impressed by Karajan’s intense conducting, which seems so right in the wake of the unavoidable tragedy that is going to happen.

Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Melissande

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

Urania 267 [2CDs]

  Click to buy

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

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