2 Excursions Through Shadowy ‘Pelléas’ With Different Ideals In View

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François-Xavier Roth leading a recording session of Debussy’s opera with Les Siècles, his historical instrument ensemble.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Les Siècles. François-Xavier Roth, conductor. harmonia mundi HMM 905352.54.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion. Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, conductor. St-Laurent Studio YSL 1195 T.

DIGITAL REVIEW — Few operas operate by such singular rules as Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Its shadowy, imaginary French-Symbolist realm is either your desert-island favorite or on your never-come-near-me-again list. The 1902 opera has two recently released recordings with a central, common launching point: The newly minted harmonia mundi set by Les Siècles uses historical instruments under the sure hand of François-Xavier Roth, and the other is a 1963 live recording, just issued by the Canadian boutique label St-Laurent Studio, led by Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht (1880-1965), the bookish, bespectacled conductor who was a close friend and frequent correspondent during the last seven years of the composer’s life. He was even a member of Les Apaches, a radical salon circle of Debussy fanatics who had a history of going out into the Paris streets and coercing people to attend Pelléas et Mélisande.

These significant recordings have in common a high-def approach, more akin to the photo-realism of Dali than the hazier landscapes of Monet. But despite similar starting points, they don’t go to the same places by any means. The two performances are like trees with the same roots but that end up casting their own kinds of shade and turning different autumn colors.

The story is accommodating. The original wonder-struck but often-sinister play by then-famous Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck begins with Prince Golaud finding the stranded, traumatized Mélisande alone in the woods (some say she was an escaped wife of Bluebeard) and bringing her back to his kingdom, where the trees block out sunlight and peasants are starving. When Mélisande falls in love with Golaud’s dashing younger half-brother Pelléas, Pelléas is murdered and Mélisande serenely expires after childbirth, though we don’t know why. You either embrace or are confounded by the ambiguities. In one later scene, the boy Yniold is trying to move a giant rock — which is where the opera moves from Symbolism to Surrealism. Debussy responded with his longest and perhaps most astoundingly inventive score, in which all action is mirrored in the orchestra in ways that point straight forward to Berg’s Wozzeck.

The score’s sound world has plenty of leeway as well. Inghelbrecht no doubt knew the more demure, gut-string instruments heard at the opera’s 1902 premiere. But by 1963, the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion (now known as the Orchestre National de France), which Inghelbrecht founded in 1934, was well past that era of string sound, and he uses the modern strings vividly. Also evident is the full-bodied wind instrument sound representing one of last gasps of nationalistic French style. In his readings of the score, Inghelbrecht is like a great art-song interpreter, telling the story by inflecting the strings with shamanistic insights plus secondary commentary from the winds.

Yet Roth, through study and research, may well know this symbolism-laden landscape with more objective clarity. Now 50, Roth has a packed resume of positions in Liège, Stuttgart, Baden Baden, Cologne, and London. His most distinctive work has been with Les Siècles, which he formed in 2003. He is a highly prized guest at European music festivals that give him the platform for projects such as original-instrument performances of The Rite of Spring. In more concrete terms, Roth’s period instruments — gut-stringed instruments and all — tell the story with their timbres, contrasts, and collages of sound.

The fact that both approaches are equally convincing points to some solid underlying concepts. And that’s what Inghelbrecht spells out — more than other Debussy contemporaries such as Ernest Ansermet, Pierre Monteux, and the younger Roger Désormière — in an extensive 1933 lecture in which he talks about not the desired quality of sound but the best method for creating it. “The most common mistake in interpreting Debussy is to have the instruments enter as in a symphony by Saint-Saëns or Beethoven when really, in most cases, they should just creep in.” That, hopefully, is now common practice, as is Inghelbrecht’s approach to the words: “The performance would often gain by occasionally speaking the text and adding the melody Debussy intended to poetise that text afterwards.” In 1933, Inghelbrecht felt that he still needed to differentiate Debussy from bel canto opera.

Though not mentioned by Inghelbrecht, the ideal is Claire Croiza (1882-1946), whose 1928 recording of excerpts in the role of the mother Geneviève is considered to be the perfect balance of conveying depth of meaning within the flow of the music. I didn’t realize how much Inghelbrecht enshrined the words until comparisons with Roth, who gives more decisive shape to even the most narrative passages of the score. Both are equally effective on the words vs. music spectrum. The point is that singers avoid affectation. They don’t play characters; they are characters. But no “simpering,” says Inghelbrecht, which wouldn’t happen anyway in his live, large-theater performances. Though these characters are at the mercy of many unseen forces, they are not passive. Yet Roth’s studio-recording setting allows intimate exchanges between characters that fall into the simpering zone — effectively so.

The goal is to let the opera reveal itself. More objective Debussy performances supply the notes and let listeners interpret the mystery. But that’s not what one hears in Inghelbrecht’s passionate account. Better for performers to probe the mysteries without concluding what they mean. “Neither too much nor too little” was the prescription offered by André Messager (1853-1929), the composer of operas such as Isoline and conductor of the 1902 Pelleas premiere at the Opéra-Comique. Like a Zen kōan, it’s an idea that reveals itself the deeper you go into the opera.

Both conductors use slimmer voices — especially apparent in the casting of Golaud: Avoiding wooly-voiced basses not only allows for text articulation but also makes Golaud a more viable romantic rival to Pelléas. Oddly, the 1963 Inghelbrecht recording has Jacques Mars, a rather bigger voice than past outings that included baritones such as Gérard Souzay — and one indication that the opera’s performing tradition was slipping, perhaps prompted by what kind of voices were most available. Roth has grainy-voiced Alexandre Duhamel — more in keeping with Inghelbrecht but with idiosyncratic enunciation. As for Pelléas, Roth has Julien Behr, a Mozartian tenor who works just fine and articulates the role with the very best. Inghelbrecht went for ‘baryton-martin’ voices such as Jacques Jansen and Camille Maurane, the former being one of a great, durable Pelléas, the latter being idiomatically French but a bit overtaxed in his upper range during the 1963 recording — one of several reasons I prefer Inghelbrecht’s recordings from 1955 (YSL 0285 T ) and 1962 (Montaigne archives V 4854).

Gender dynamics have had a radical impact on Mélisande: In contrast to Inghelbrecht’s frightened, defensive Act I Mélisande (Micheline Grancher), Roth’s me-too Mélisande (Vannina Santoni) is on the offensive and dangerous — her threats of suicide coming off more like courageous statements of how she refuses to live. The voice itself might not haunt you in your dreams, but her detailed characterization will. For the boy Yniold, Inghelbrecht has Francoise Ogeas, a sometime Mélisande. Roth has a boy soprano (Hadrien Joubert), who promises unaffected theatrical veracity but hasn’t enough sound to convey the terror as his father forces him to spy on his wife.

Underneath it all — in a less-apparent element discussed by Inghelbrecht — are matters of subterranean flow, the underlying harmonic continuity that Debussy establishes via tonal planning and an inner sense of narrative that keeps even the most puzzling plot events moving forward. It’s a foundation but a fluid one, perhaps best compared to a compass, that allows everything on top of it to reinvent itself in whatever ways mean the most to the performers. For listeners, even the opera’s more discursive orchestral interludes become so cogent under Inghelbrecht that they become worlds unto themselves, entrancing when viewed on a macro scale but always revealing breathtaking new details when heard microscopically. Always the same, always different, Pelléas et Mélisande is the ultimate self-renewing opera whose past iterations are deeply beloved and whose future iterations are eagerly anticipated and rarely predictable.