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Tuesday 5 February 2013

DVD review: Pelléas et Mélisande 1992 WNO Boulez

Deutsche Grammophon

Mélisande: Alison Hagley
Pelléas: Neil Archer
Golaud: Donald Maxwell
Arkel: Kenneth Cox

Director: Peter Stein
Conductor: Pierre Boulez
Welsh National Opera

This production was important in its time and received good reviews and continues to be highly regarded amongst lovers of this most recherche score. I thought I better check it out.

Alison Hagley's Mélisande is very youthful and natural both vocally and dramatically, and she gives a pleasingly simple, innocent and other worldly performance. The voice is attractive, fragile, sweet and slightly brittle sounding in climaxes and so is in some ways ideal. The other clear stand out is Kenneth Cox's wonderfully orotund Arkel, absolutely solid and ripe throughout his range. Wonderful singing. Neil Archer (Pelléas) and Donald Maxwell (Golaud) both sing their music very respectably indeed, one can hardly complain, but neither is very dramatically committed which is particularly hard to take with so many close ups.

Peter Stein's production is a decent staging if you like your productions vanilla and your singers to be accurate rather than having strong personalities of their own. The costumes strongly suggest the late 19th century, as Golaud looks like Debussy and Pelléas like Oscar Wilde, but it obviously remains a fantasy setting with set designs that are slightly abstract, shadowy and plain but recognisably what is written in the score. It's not at all interventionist, and doesn't try to explain or elucidate the symbolism or elliptical drama too much which is fine, but don't expect any easy insights. It basically works well, but didn't draw me in that much, though I think this also might have been to do with the conducting.

Though I have heard Boulez in plenty of Second Viennese stuff and contemporary music, surprisingly this is the first time I have ever heard him conduct something tonal that wasn't by Stravinsky (a composer for whom his conducting was made). His approach here is icy and precise, but there's no bouquet, no aroma, no seduction, not enough sickness, and though it's very clear that this is what he wants, in this piece it just seems inappropriate to me. He also can't sustain a line or anything slow which is a bit of a problem in this score. Maybe some will like his absolute eschewal of any sentimentality, but for me he also strips the piece of half of its genuine sentiment and atmosphere too.

Something to bear in mind: the filming is oddly antiquated considering this was filmed in 1992. There's a lot of grainyness and bright colours bleed when the camera moves quickly.

P.S. Most gratuitous use of animals ever award goes to this production where a live sheep is onstage for all of four seconds for Yniold's solo scene. Great.

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