Cher Public

Now it is the turn of the poor little small one

It is hard to know just who is the intended audience for this release of Pelléas and Mélisande.  The “Opera in English” series on Chandos has issued commercial releases of live broadcasts by important artists in roles they never recorded in the studio (Elisabeth Soederstroem as Christine in Intermezzo, Janet Baker as Charlotte in Werther, etc.)  But what is the justification here? 

With the exception of Sarah Walker and John Tomlinson, none of the principal singers has much name recognition outside ofEngland.  Its primary distinction is also its greatest liability:  an English-language rendering of what for many is an opera unthinkable in anything other than its original French.

Hugh Macdonald’s translation is problematic on several levels.  In the liner notes, he states:  “Being prose, the text has neither rhyme nor metre, and the vocal writing is close to speech.  A translation must therefore aim to reproduce the conversational, unpoetic, essentially plain tone of the original even if a different number of syllables is often required in English in comparison with the same line in French.”  The shift in syllables is jarring and always sounds at odds with Debussy’s rhythmic treatment of the vocal line.  One hears this early on when Mélisande’s “Ne me touchez pas” is truncated to “Don’t touch me.”  The English setting rubs out the breathless, frightened character of her first utterances.  There are many similarly unconvincing moments.

The cast is generally efficient but not particularly memorable.  As Mélisande, Eilene Hannan occasionally evokes memories of Soederstroem in this music but without the Swedish diva’s radiant expressiveness and gift for detailed portraiture.  Robert Dean (no relation to the American Wagnerian tenor) is earnest and inoffensive but conveys little of the haunted desperation associated with the very greatest interpreters of Pelléas.  Neil Howlett’s attractively vocalized Golaud is all smoking jacket and brandy snifter, completely missing the note of savagery in the later scenes.

Walker’s ripe, pungent mezzo-soprano is heard to striking effect in Genevieve’s brief scenes.  Even more impressive is the young Tomlinson as Arkel.  The voice is surprisingly lighter in timbre and weight than what audiences would encounter later via his weathered readings of Wotan, Hans Sachs and Gurnemanz.  His singing gives consistent pleasure and he brings much-needed presence and personality to the performance.  As Yniold, Rosanne Brackenridge does better than most adult singers in simulating the uncomplicated sound of a boy soprano but I still prefer a child performer.

Mark Elder leads the English National Opera and Chorus and he is the performance’s greatest asset.  He finds wondrous degrees of luminosity and transparency in the lyrical portions of the score but is unafraid to let a Wagnerian roar surface from time to time, as in the interlude between the two scenes of Act Four.  Elder brings unabashed passion and sexual release to the penultimate scene between Pelléas and Mélisande.

Curiously, there are little snips in several of the interludes for no apparent reason.  The recording is spread across three discs, so the cuts were unique to the production and the rationale for them is now presumably lost to obscurity.  The sound is exceptional for a broadcast:  crisply detailed with a perfectly integrated balance between singers and orchestra.  Would that Met broadcasts of the period boasted similar refinement!

In summary, this release may stir warm memories for those who saw this performance at the Coliseum back in 1981.  But it is hardly competitive with the very best recordings of the opera and seriously hobbled by its dutiful, drab translation.

  • grimoaldo

    Thanks for the review.
    Vicar! vicar! let’s hear your thoughts on this ASAP!

    • MontyNostry

      Was Robert Dean possibly a damn Yankee?

  • Henry Holland

    I still prefer a child performer

    Me too. It seems hard to believe that ENO couldn’t find a boy soprano with sufficient voice, what with all the church choirs in England.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    “One hears this early on when Mélisande’s “Ne me touchez pas” is truncated to “Don’t touch me.”

    This clearly does not work 1.) You must not me touch ! You must not me touch ! (or I’ll be all aglow!

    • This is why translation is an art, singing translation a specialized art within the art. Treated as a utilitarian process you get, well…what we usually get: leaden, workmanlike translations fully divorced from any poetry or wit in the original. “Don’t touch me” for “ne me touchez pas”, if it is representative of the rest, is just a risible thing to do to a great opera libretto and then record for posterity. I don’t immediately have a better idea, which is why nobody is paying me to do it.

      • grimoaldo

        Do not touch me please?
        Keep your hands off me?
        Keep away from me?

        • “Keep away from me” is not perfect, but it’s definitely usuable.

      • armerjacquino

        “Th’enigmas are triune, while death is solo”

      • For many years after seeing a conservatory “Pelleas” sung in English, a friend and I would still howl at the memory of:
        “No, no, touch me not!
        No, no, touch me not —
        Or I will throw myself into the well.”
        Although considering the alternatives, it doesn’t seem that bad now.

    • m. croche

      “Get your paws off me! Get your paws off me! I’m not your f***in’ ‘ho.”

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        La Cieca is right about the douche, and yes, I rather like this tweek:
        “Keep yo paws from me! Keep yo paws from me! I’m not no f***in’ ‘ho.”

      • “Do not fuck with me! Do not fuck with me! This ain’t my first rodeo!”

      • papopera

        try again with PAWS at the end to sound like the French ne me touchez PAS on the same note

        ne me touchez PAS
        -- -- -- -- -- -- PAWS

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

          Trim your creepy paws! Trim your creepy paws! I’m singin DebusSY!

          • manou

            …or rather “Trim your creepy paws!I’m singing DePussy”.

        • oedipe

          Bug off, creepy paws!
          Knock it off, big paws!

      • Regina delle fate

        That’s clearly the translation for the ENO’s upcoming Bieto production of P & M.

    • Buster

      Go piss on your leg! Go piss on your leg!

      • Fifi Figaro

        Since it’s a British record company:

        Bugger off, old chap! Bugger off, old chap!

  • “Turn the shower off! Turn the shower off!” (This is based on the text as it is actually heard, not what is in the libretto.)

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    For later:

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    “Curiously, there are little snips in several of the interludes for no apparent reason. ”

    These may be the abbreviated interludes of the original version. Is the Golaud line “Sont ils près du lit” (“Are they near the bed”) included in his scene with Yniold?

    • Enzo Bordello

      From the Chandos booklet: “This recording is based on a BBC radio broadcast and contains certain minor aural and technical imperfections, as well as cuts in some of the orchestral interludes, which originated in the ENO production.”

      The genesis and evolution of the interludes is covered in exhaustive detail by Roger Nichols and Richard Langham Smith in their book on the opera (part of the Cambridge University Press). Apparently, Debussy was very resentful about having to add them at all. His full score contains snips in the complete versions of the interludes, suggesting that he only wanted as much music as necessary to cover the scenery changes which necessitated the addition of these interludes in the first place. I am intrigued now and will investigate whether the ENO cuts correspond with Debussy’s edits to his own material.

      And regarding the once-scandalous Golaud line, the MacDonald translation reads: “And . . . And the bed? Are they near the bed?”

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield

    Hannan--the best Sieglinde since Sylvia Fisher!

  • derschatzgabber

    Do not touch me now.

  • cosmodimontevergine

    Don’t mash my tush!