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Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
Vannina Santoni (Mélisande), Julien Behr (Pelléas), Alexandre Duhamel (Golaud), Marie-Ange Todorovitch (Geneviève), Jean Teitgen (Arkel), Damien Pass (Le Médecin), Hadrien Joubert (Yniold), Mathieu Gourlet (Un berger), Chœur de l’Opéra de Lille, Yves Parmentier (chorus master), Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth (conductor)
Recording: Opéra de Lille and La Seine Musicale - l’Auditorium Patrick Devedjian, Boulogne-Billancourt, France (March 2021) – 158’15
3 CDs harmonia mundi HMM905352.54 (Distributed by PIAS) – Booklet in French, English and German

“With the trajectory behind me, I try to conduct the work [Pelléas et Mélisande] with the greatest honesty to the text. It’s an opera I feel very close to, and the more I study it and conduct it the more difficult and enigmatic I find it.”
François-Xavier Roth

As for this exacting musician, conductor and teacher, François-Xavier Roth has had plenty of opportunities to delve into Debussy’s score: Pelléas was the first opera he conducted with the Orchestre de Caen in 2002. Time has been well spent by mapping Debussy’s musical output to that of Maeterlinck’s writing...in the end, wheels of uncertainty continue to turn.

Those who ambitiously cling to Pelléas et Mélisande can witness the duskiness in Daniel Jeanneteau’s Opéra de Lille 2021 production. Per M. Jeanneteau, concerning Mélisande, she’s “...not bound to any of the social or familial rules...it’s a sort of liberation. And when we fail to understand liberation, it appears as catastrophe.” Mélisande’s innocence clashes with Allemonde’s rigid boundaries. This time-tested generalized theory is beautifully delivered through the principals’ voices, giving some shades of psychological feelings that don’t fully elicit a true picture. But it’s the orchestra that completes the thought, the nuance, the suggestion or even the insinuation.

Now we can open the castle window and allow the sun’s rays to beam brightly into Pélleas and make clearer sense of Debussy’s ambiguities. M. Roth’s firm belief of using period instruments enables the listener to get more intimately involved in the psyche of all the characters. The naturalness and the crystallization is all there: a rich mixture of sinewy strings, piquant woodwinds and clarion brass fills in the missing spaces. Use of gut strings induces folds of complex overtones, adding to the opera’s timeless bewilderment. François-Xavier Roth goes to great lengths to carefully choose gradient amounts of crescendos and decrescendos, bar for bar...the subtleties are immeasurable.

Pelléas et Mélisande’s cast is superb: it has an eloquent simplicity that shines. Vocal purity, infused with innocence, is how we hear Vannina Santoni’s Mélisande while Julien Behr gives Pelléas moments of tender empathy, sincere compassion and eventual outpourings of love (“On dirait que ta voix a passé sur la mer au printemps”). Alexandre Duhamel’s baritone timbre, as is found in his Golaud, gives the opera a haunting and fascinating edge. Marie-Ange Todorovitch’s Geneviève is methodical and a bit distant while the role of Yniold (sung by Hadrien Joubert from the Maîtrise de Caen) doesn’t yield enough childishness and youthful exuberance, and the cataclysmic ending of Act IV, Scene III, fails to fully gel...a big disappointment. In contrast, with a radiance emanating within his heavy bass register, Jean Teitgen places his Arkel on firm footing.

Whenever François-Xavier Roth steps up to the podium, there’ll be no doubt that the music he conducts will be of utmost precision and the highest caliber. harmonia mundi’s hardbound book (a total of 251 pages) has the full libretto (in French, English and German)…the listener has all the tools needed to bathe in the glory of Claude Debussy’s music.

Pelléas et Mélisande is a true winner!

Christie Grimstad




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