Claude Debussy's great literary opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, based on Maeterlinck's dramatic reading of the classic tale of sibling rivalry, was first performed in 1902. This 1988 production was recorded at the Opéra na... more »tional de Lyon, swapping a traditional medieval forest setting for a fin de siècle Castle Allemonde in which the characters wander through vast, shadowy, and empty halls. The cast features Colette Alliot-Lugaz as a mercurial Mélisande and François Le Roux as a Byronic Pelléas, with José van Dam as his brother Golaud, the austere fly in the ointment. Little actually happens on stage. The characters circle each other, describing events and emotions which they only half understand. Often, their recitative is introspective rather than a means of external communication. The drama is played out in the landscape of the mind, punctuated and emphasized by Debussy's remarkable, brooding, and atmospheric score. At times, it becomes the swirling stuff of nightmare, an aspect to which John Eliot Gardiner's assured conducting pays close attention. The opera might come to its inevitable end, but there is a strong sense that these ghost-like figures are doomed to repeat their tragic tale endlessly. Uncomfortably haunting stuff, with moments of breathtaking beauty. --Piers Ford« less
Dream cast, wonderful musically, but a missed opportunity.
Plaza Marcelino | Caracas Venezuela | 07/01/2002
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This could well have been the Pelléas & Mélisande you've been dreaming of. To begin with, the cast is all francophone, which in a so text-dependent opera as this surely must count as an important advantage; it shares with precious few other operas a libretto of such high literary quality, a significant portion of Maeterlinck's original play having found an almost verbatim placing in the opera.
Some readers may remember Alliot-Lugaz's outstanding Mélisande from her Decca 3-cd album conducted by Dutoit that came out some 10 or 12 years ago, a recording that preserved her rôle's characterisation in sound that fittingly finds a logical companion in this roughly contemporary video production. Le Roux is the true french baryton, that sort of noble high baritone (or low tenor if you prefer) that comes around seldomly and that makes some rôles in french opera so hard to bring off succesffuly, the true successor to that illustrious line of singers epitomised by Hughes Cuénod. By 1987 Van Dam was still capable of bringing off startling results even though he was past his prime, and the rest of the cast also achieve a superior level of accomplishment. In no less good form are Gardiner and his Lyons forces, to whom he was closely associated at the time, who carry this music (and the whole and very significant cultural baggage behind it) in their blood. So there you are, you're in posession of practically all of the lottery tickets, so what's keeping you from winning out right?
Let's go now into that. First of all, the production itself gets tiresome after a while. Pelléas & Mélisande is a dangerous work to produce in the theatre, there's little stage action per se along the 5 acts, events succeed one another slowly and you may end up with a sublime piece of music that bores your audience, no less. And the ideas put into practice here don't help at all: décors don't change at all, the 5 acts happen in the same drawing room of some large bourgeois house from approximately the time the work was composed, and stage action is mostly evoked rather than actually shown: no forest, no fountain, no sea cave, no tower from which Mélisande's hair hangs down, and so on. So there are many situations where concrete places and events are referred to in the text that don't find a stage correlation, as in for example the very first scene, where Golaud and Mélisande don't actually meet in the forest as is actually sung and supposed to happen on stage, but we rather watch an old and perhaps embittered Golaud who half drunkenly reminisces at those events, which may have taken place many years ago. So you end up listening to a dialogue in which only one of its participants is present and seen (?) but both are heard loud and clear. And so with the rest of the work, there's more that doesn't work in the end in the production than what does: Pelléas & Mélisande's hair hanging from the tower scene happens here in the same drawing room, Mélisane's hair hanging ... from a sofa. The main idea behind the production may seem interesting at first, but does tire after a while. And second, the sound: in my copy at least, it starts okay, begins to deteriorate once the 3rd act begins and keeps going downhill from then on. I don't know if this problem affects only Image's US release (or a portion thereof) or if this defect is also present in the European discs of the same performance published by Arthaus Musik (but they also advertise an NTSC release in their website, so I guess you may care to look it up).
Summing up, I'd state that if your copy's sound is alright throughout (assuming the problem described above affected only a batch of Image's US release from which unfortunately my copy was a part), buy it as many years may still go by before a similar cast is gathered and so successfully bring off the music. Visually, and in spite of some strikingly beautiful images, it is likely that the production will end up losing its interest, so you may end up turning off the TV and just enjoying some of the most glorious music put out during the turn of the XX century, magnificently sung and played by cast and orchestra. But for that perhaps you may have to end up digging up the NTSC Arthaus Musik issue. Image should take note of this problem.
Review originally written in 2002 / February 2005 addenda: I wrote Image several times complaining on the sound deterioration problem, which has been pointed out not only by me but also by others in their comments on this disc. When they finally replied, they did so to state that the problem was in the source material licenced them by RM Associates; to me at least, acknowledging this fact but not giving any warning in the box to prospective customers is utterly censorable. Also, as I changed by old DVD deck for a new Philips multi-colour television standard (PAL/NTSC) and multi-region one, I purchased from Amazon France Arthaus Musik's PAL-encoded release of the same performance (the NTSC TV standard version catalogue number having disappeared from their website lists since when I wrote the original review in 2002): the image quality is comparable to Image's but the sound is absolutely beautiful throughout (what happened to Image's report on the fault being on the original material?). So, if your DVD deck can play Region 2 discs and is also able to read PAL-encoded material, definitely go for the Arthaus Musik release."
A significant disappointment
Plaza Marcelino | 05/17/2002
(2 out of 5 stars)
"Let's get to the heart of the matter. This Pelléas et Mélisande is a 1987 production of the Opéra National de Lyon taped for French television, and the quality of the video image and sound are about what you would expect for 1987 TV: grainy visuals and videotape artifacts with harsh and unfocused but reasonably clear orchestra sound, balanced somewhat inconsistently with the voices of the soloists. The box describes the audio as "Dolby Digital", but this must refer to DVD playback only because periodic distortion suggests mediocre analog source material. In any case, the foregoing applies only to Acts I through III, because things go rather dramatically downhill at the beginning of Act IV. Here, abruptly, it is as if entirely different audio feeds were used. While the visuals remain roughly the same, now suddenly our ears tell us that we are standing behind the singers and well away from the orchestra - possibly backstage, in the men's room, or in the parking lot. In the final two acts, some of Debussy's most beautiful and intensely moving music is fatally smothered, heard as though through earmuffs, with someone continuously and arbitrarily resetting the dynamic levels and balances.Very, very bad. What happened, and why was this disc released this way?That said, a word or two about the disc and the performance otherwise. Gardiner's literalism is a good match for the relatively bloodless character of the staging and some of the acting, which initially reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's psychodramas (think "Cries and Whispers"), except that Bergman's characters never remain quite so remote throughout as stage director Pierre Strosser's do. Collete Alliot-Lugaz' fine singing is undercut by her Stepford Wife flatness in the Mélisande rôle, and Roger Soyer's stiffness as Arkel reduces his dramatic impact, despite the adequacy of his voice. On the plus side, François Le Roux (who just sang a Golaud of overwhelming intensity at the Opéra Comique de Paris' centenary performance of the opera on April 30 of this year) is very good as Pelléas if already somewhat past the bloom of youth, and José van Dam reprises his great Golaud from the amazing 1979 Karajan CD recording, with equally passionate stage and vocal performances - he is the very anchor of the film.The staging consists of just one set suggesting a period contemporaneous with the composition of the play and the opera, rather than the original gothic conception. While I'm all in favor of creative updating I am not so keen on indifference to explicit stage directions, especially when it produces needless distraction ("What the hell are they looking at?"), as here. Indeed Debussy is on record as being opposed to productions of either the play or his opera that ignore the clear indications of Maeterlinck's text, and Strosser's is certainly one of those. It's not only a matter of Mélisande's hair being the wrong color (which specifically annoyed Debussy and Mary Garden at a London production of the play, with Sarah Bernhardt gender-bending as Pelléas), or numerous "outdoor" scenes being played in what is clearly an interior space, but also myriad references to objects which are not present and sights which cannot be seen. This kind of thing sometimes works in a completely abstract stage environment, but here, with articulated sets and props, references to certain fixed but invisible objects (the Well of Blindness - no pun intended) that keep moving around with the singers' glances just seems improvisational in the not-so-great sense, and amateurish.So to sum up, while this video has certain strengths (José van Dam) and various things of interest for those who love Pelléas et Mélisande, I do not recommend viewing and listening to it, except as a curiosity, and I certainly do not recommend buying it. I do recommend that Image Entertainment consider fixing the sound in the second half, and then it might at least be something worthy of sitting on the DVD shelf next to their excellent release of Janácek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" (Théâtre Châtelet, Paris, 1995), as my copy does anyway. Until then, for those with an interest in getting to know Pelléas, I recommend buying or borrowing the Karajan CD version and following along with the libretto, supplemented, perhaps, by Roger Nichols' excellent books about Debussy and his haunting, extraordinary music."
The Sound is BAD
ficta | Columbia, MD USA | 06/07/2002
(2 out of 5 stars)
"I have to agree with "A Viewer From San Francisco"'s review.
If you already have a good knowledge of this work, the unusual
staging could be described as "interesting"; if you don't,
well, Pelleas and Melisande is already baffling enough (it's
supposed to be). But the sound in the later part of the
disc (after the layer switch perhaps, is this an authoring
error?) is absolutely atrocious. Hopefully Image may be
able to correct this problem, or another video production willsurface. This beautiful music deserves much better."
S. J McKenna | San Francisco, CA USA | 12/07/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This performance is consistently and repeatedly (I've been drawn back to it many times) engrossing and ...yes. .mesmerizing. The poetic essential interpretation allows the mystery and power of this most delicious score to stay at the fore -- no distractions. To address a complaint made by others, the sound on my DVD is fine -- no problems at all."
Alfonso Affinito | West Haven, Connecticut USA | 02/21/2009
(2 out of 5 stars)
"I don't mind updated productions of operas provided they make sense. This Pelleas is ridiculous. Why any director would take a symbolist work and try to symbolize symbols...does NOT make sense to me. Debussy spent a long time on this score, and painted every sound and action into the score. But what we have here, is a musical depiction of a fountain while drinking a glass of water. Characters stare into space, or seemingly talk to themselves and walk about like zombies. Pelleas is such a beautiful work. Debussy and Maeterlinck did a great job...why do thay want to spoil things?"