Pelléas et Mélisande, Irene Joachim, Jacques Jansen, Henri Etcheverry, Yvonne Gouverne Symphony Orchestra (Roger Désormière, cond.)

Debussy, Claude

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A Meeting in the Woods. . .

What comes to mind when somebody mentions Claude Debussy? Much of the French impressionist's output is devoted to nature in its undisturbed glory—his pieces evoke contemplative lakes and swirling ocean waves, fawns peering through the forest in the afternoon sun. And when somebody says "opera"? We conjure statuesque divas emoting loudly, in almost unnatural exaggerated phrases, accompanied by grand and often overwrought musical fanfares.

So, Debussy opera? It's not quite as nature-show idyllic as one might expect. With this somewhat surreal adaptation of a play by French symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck, Debussy took the French approach to opera—works best described as frothy comedies of manners—into the swollen crescendos and sudden jolts associated with Wagner. The plot follows several average Joes as fate carries them from everyday existence into tense, human drama. Set in an ancient, unspecified rural culture, it opens with a hunter lost in the woods (Golaud, sung by Henri Etcheverry), who encounters a weeping Mélisande (Irene Joachim). She gives Golaud no details of her traumatic past but agrees to follow him home, and that's when trouble begins. There are subplots involving jealousy, infidelity, and all manner of suspicion, and to accentuate them, Debussy generates music that surges and simmers, eventually breaking into the heated shouting matches operagoers expect.

Like Wagner, Debussy uses the orchestra to fill in emotional contours in the story—any-time you want to know what a character is feeling, check what the string section is doing in the background. That's where Debussy rocks. To accompany the flowing, structurally unconventional arias he's written for the singers, he conjures an often oppositional musical narrative, of sinister shadows and subtexts.

This version, recorded in Paris during the Nazi occupation, throws bright light on these rippling backdrops. The singers are at career peak, but the ensemble, led by Roger Désormière, deserves equal admiration for its attention to Debussy's slight changes in shading and sudden bursts of color. At times the instrumental passages (particularly the orchestral prelude) offer moods that are richer and more nuanced than the vocal lines.

Genre: Opera
Released: 1941, EMI
Key Tracks: Prelude; Act 2: Scene 1.
Another Interpretation: Frederica von Stade, Berlin Philharmonic (Herbert von Karajan, cond.).
Catalog Choice: Nocturnes Nos. 1–3; Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Julius Baker, L'Orchestre National de Radiodiffusion, France (Leopold Stokowski, cond.).
Next Stop: Gaetano Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, English Chamber Orchestra (Richard Bonynge, cond.)
After That: Richard Wagner: Die Walküre
Book Pages: 272–273

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