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Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande (1952 mono)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Pelleas et Melisande was premiered in 1902 and waited forty years for the first complete recording, made in 1941 under Roger Desormieres, with this Ansermet performance coming next, in 1952. As a fiftieth-anniversary present, it was greeted with huzzahs at the time. It remains one of the most idiomatic and approachable recordings you can buy of the opera. Ansermet was identified with the work, and the two leads he picked, Suzanne Danco as Melisande and Pierre Mollet as Pelleas, are expert, sympathetic singers. Decca's mono sound is clear and balanced, holding up very well over the decades. The only cavil is the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which is scrappy and squeaky by modern standards; still, the musicians know how to create the luminous atmosphere that this elusive opera demands.

The original Gramophone reviewer offers a warning to newcomers: "Let it be clearly said, without false snobbery, that Pelleas is no work for the chap who is " fond of opera " and likes a tune to take away." The warning holds good today. There are no tunes, arias, or set pieces in Pelleas, which is esteemed by connoisseurs for being so natural and conversational that music and text form a seamless mood that is subdued and subtle form beginning to end, even though the plot, of young lovers who betray an older husband, contains violence and jealsousy.

Debussy set Maeterlink's famous play word for word, and a good deal depends on loving the play and, almost as much, on knowing French. Only then, we are told, can the nuance of the text be fully appreciated, along with Debussy's eminently sophisticated setting of each line. I know some French but cannot follow the libretto by ear, so all of this subtlety escapes me, I suppose. Over the years my enthusiasm for Pelleas has come and gone, with no great liking even at the best of times. There's only so much delicate shimmering I can take at a sitting; I think this is one opera that really works its magic only in stage productions rather than at home.

The main reason I bought another version is Mollet. The role of Pelleas is notoriously difficult to cast, since it lies halfway between tenor and baritone. Mollet possessed a "baryton martin," or a light lyric baritone with a tenor extension, and it's perfect. Set against his half-brother and rival in love, Golaud, Pelleas is meant to be a teenager undermining a mature man, and here the contrast really works. Although German, Heinz Rehfuss sounds perfectly at ease as Golaud. As for the overall atmosphere, it isn't too gauzy (the same is true of Ansermet's later stereo remake, which is also very good and oddly, has no French singers in the leading roles). The waarmth I feel emanating from this recording is welcome, because Pelleas can be a chilly, weightless affair. Here it is brought down to earth just enough to pique my interest more than usual.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2014
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Though the sound could have more air to it, I very much like the atmosphere of this performance, especially as created by Ansermet, but also by his cast. It is gentle, though to some that may spell "without forward propulsion." But like its forebear "Parsifal," "Pelleas et Melisande" can withstand a variety of interpretations. So, depending on one's mood, this one will the perfect choice or the wrong one, in which case I'd turn to the Boulez or von Karajan or to one of the really vintage recordings.
If my reader has no experience with "Pelleas et Melisande" I'd recommend borrowing one for a free listen before purchasing any. There's an interesting list to be made: "Operas: deeply loved or absolutely hated," on which, I'll bet, "Pelleas" would probably appear often. I thought I'd stepped on a toe from the eruption I got from one member of an audience when I brought up "Pelleas" in conversation. I don't think the Ansermet from 1952 affords a conversion experience from the latter category to the former, but if you're already a fan it's competitive.
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