Cher Public

Lavender lady

pilou_thumbAccording to Mary Garden’s autobiography, Claude Debussy first encountered the Scottish-born diva at the Opéra Comique.  After rehearsing her at the piano in a few scenes from his newly completed opera, Debussy said to Garden:  “To think that you had to come from the cold far North to create my Mélisande.”  He then turned to the theater’s impresario and exclaimed:  “I have nothing to tell her.”

This 1983 Met broadcast of Pelléas et Mélisande (included in James Levine: Celebrating 40 Years at the Met – CD Box Set), features an Egyptian-Greek enchantress whom Debussy may also have found similarly beyond reproach:  lyric soprano Jeannette Pilou.  

A specialist in French opera, Pilou was returning to the Met after a six-year absence.  She had been a fixture there throughout the final years of the Rudolf Bing regime; in addition to Micaëla, Juliette and Marguerite, she also sang Susanna, Zerlina, Violetta, Nannetta, Mimi, Butterfly and Nedda during her almost 20-year career with the company.  I had the great pleasure of seeing her Butterfly and Manon in my youth and Pilou’s exotic beauty and charisma left an indelible impression.

The role of Mélisande exploits all the special qualities of Pilou’s artistry.  Her sung French is exquisite and the delicate, lavender-colored quality of her timbre conveys both the latent sensuality and “grande innocence” of the character.  Pilou’s Achilles heel was a recalcitrant top register and the voice could spread under pressure.  Fortunately, the part is neither high nor loud and allows Pilou to score one textual and musical point after another.

Interpretatively, Pilou has a gift for understatement.  Her characterization is refreshingly opaque, avoiding the trap of obviousness and emphatic underlining that so many singers fall into.  Throughout, her cool, limpid tone exudes a bewitching femininity.  This is a wonderful souvenir of Pilou.  She made only one commercial recording (Micaela in the Erato Carmen with Crespin), so those of us who recall her gentle art with pleasure are indebted to the Met for making this broadcast available.

She is well-partnered by the American baritone Dale Duesing as Pelléas.  Duesing was an attractive, versatile “kavalier baritone” who never quite garnered the recognition he deserved.  He is an interestingly masculine, almost brash Pelléas.  He manages the upper reaches of the role better than most baritones and artfully resorts to head voice on only one or two occasions.  Duesing’s portrayal grows in ardor as the performance progresses and he and Pilou are rapturously ecstatic in their final duet.

José van Dam first sang Golaud at the Met in 1977 and it was to become the role most associated with him there.  Although my memory told me he lacked the raw savagery of Gabriel Bacquier, I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover how much dementia van Dam actually brings to the role.  His depiction of Golaud’s descent into paranoid jealousy, murderous rage and inconsolable grief is harrowing.  For such a universally celebrated “stimm” artist, van Dam is not afraid to let his voice sound ragged and choked with pain in the final encounter with Melisande.  His eloquence as a native French speaker is self-evident.

Ditto Jocelyne Taillon as Geneviève, who has reaped a harvest of rotten tomatoes of late on parterre.com.  There have been more vocally opulent exponents of this brief role but few with her conversational ease in the letter-reading scene.

In addition to the aforementioned pleasures of this set, it preserves Jerome Hines in perhaps his greatest performance of a role that he owned for many seasons.  His weathered yet imposing bass is perfect for Arkel and he lavishes the affection of a true Pelléas connoisseur on every phrase.  Hines is indescribably moving in his final reflections to Golaud.  When he sings “Mais la tristes de toute ce que l’on voit,” Hines is so inside the character’s skin that it sounds as if his own heart is breaking.  This is an unforgettable moment from a major Met career.

David Owen not only commands all of little Yniold’s notes but is dramatically engaging in a role known for its high annoyance factor.  Julien Robbins also makes his mark as the Physician.

But any Pelléas rises or falls on the strength of its conductor and Levine makes a compelling case for a full-out Wagnerian approach to the music.  He understands that the score is a magnificent showpiece for a great orchestra and encourages the Met players to seize on their respective opportunities with expression, subtlety and full-blown passion where required.  The interludes are sonorously played and fulfill all their narrative potential.

This memorable recording of Pelléas, capturing several important artists at the peak of their powers, is highly recommended.

  • Bill

    Pilou was a favorite of mine from the first I heard
    her as a totally unknown singer in her premiere season in Vienna in the autumn of 1965 as Mimi. Then a wonderful Michaela with Christa Ludwig. I would agree with the reviewer above -- after a few years her highest notes were just a little hard -she did have one misfortune when she replaced Caballe in a broadcast of Traviata at the Met and came to grief at the end of the first act, but throughout her career, she gave considerable pleasure, was charmingly demure on the stage, excelled in French roles, and I believe, after de los Angeles, was my favorite Melisande to date (with a tip of the hat also to Patricia Brooks who was so effective at the City Opera with a very different “covered” voice). It is fortunate that Levine picked this Pelleas with Pilou to be in his collection. Pilou’s last role at the Met (Nedda I believe) did reflect a rather sad deterioration of the freshness of voice she had desplayed in the decade 1965-75. Her Manon is quite lovely -- she was good in Mozart and even risked all three roles in Einem’s Der Process. During her finest years she seemed to lurk in the shadow of Freni who sang many of the same roles, but I always adored the silvery voice of Pilou and felt she was surely the equal of Freni in the roles they shared, particularly Michaela, Manon, Juliette, Marguerite, Zerlina and as Mimi etc. A lovely artist and unfortunately slightly forgotten for lack of commercial discs. She was in Vienna from 1965-79 and it was said that the Intendant at the time, just coincidentally discovered her at a casual audition though she had previously sung a few seasons in Italy. She was born in 1937 in Fayum, Egypt (of Greek parentage) and had first studies in
    Milan with Castellani with a 1960 debut (somewhere in Italy) as Violetta.

    • iltenoredigrazia

      Pilou was a lovely Juliette at the Met.

  • Belfagor

    Well, Pelleas is one of my all-time favorites, and it’s an opera I have more recordings of than just about anything else -- it’s a chameleon piece and can withstand many approaches, from super-saturated orchestral showpiece, to a much more austere sound-world which highlights the pieces debt to 17th century Italian opera in its handling of prosody.

    Just how lush is this performance? -- I’ve never heard Levine do it -- the one recording I’m allergic to is the ’79 Karajan for EMI, much too overblown, which seems to make the piece fall apart at the seams…..otherwise am intrigued, especially about Pilou.

    And ps: Mary Garden’s memoirs are well worth a read. Pure fiction apparently, and she implies both Massenet and Puccini fancied her (maybe they did!) but gloriously overblown and most instructive for any aspiring diva…….

  • prunier

    I also remember being enchanted by Pilou’s voice when I heard her broadcast of Nedda in the eighties. Remembering that, I recently purchased a live recording of LA RONDINE, available on Opera d’Oro, with her as Magda. It’s worth hearing, but unfortunately the low technical quality of the recording doesn’t do justice to her sound.