Debussy: Rodrigue Et Chimene

Album cover art
Label: ERATO
Catalog: 450998508
Format: CD

Rare and out of Print opera by Debussy. One copy only!
Debussy is famous for only one opera "Pelleas et Melisande", but it is one which revolutionized the whole genre and it still has the power to divide audiences who are either hypnotized by its unique atmosphere or bored to tears by its lack of conventional action. Sadly, Debussy never managed to finish another such work for the stage, though he did try (the New York Met bought the rights to his promised operas on stories by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Devil in the Belfry") but apathy and increasing illness got the better of him before he could make much headway on these projects. So it's a pleasant surprise to find this recording, a reconstruction of a lost opera which Debussy worked on in his late twenties before he embarked on his most famous works. Debussy was persuaded to take on a libretto by the rather shady minor Symbolist poet and fervent Wagnerian Catulle Mendes. The subject, a story of love and honour based on the life of El Cid (which also inspired Massenet's contemporary opera "Le Cid" of 1885) with its pompous heroics and treacly lyricism obviously had limited interest for the young composer. He was also changing considerably as an artist as he worked on the opera between 1890 and 1893 and becoming increasingly eager to get rid of the influence of Mendes's hero, "The Old Wizard of Bayreuth", Richard Wagner. He complained of the libretto: "It is the exact opposite of everything I want to express...it demands a style of music I am no longer able to write." Nevertheless he finished the vocal score which he played through to his fellow composer Paul Dukas in 1893, and had made some sketchy notes on the orchestration and dynamics, before he gave up the project, much to Mendes's disgust. Debussy had already seen the direction his genius was going to take him - he had begun work on his first fully characteristic masterpiece, "Prelude a l'Apres-Midi d'un Faune" and had just read Maurice Maeterlinck's play "Pelleas et Melisande", which was the ideal type of 'undramatic' drama he needed. "Rodrigue and Chimene" was disowned and Debussy even claimed he had burnt it, but the piano score and other sketches did in fact survive and it was reconstructed by the musicologist Richard Langham Smith in the 1980s and subsequently orchestrated by the Russian composer, Edison Denisov, which is the version presented here on this, its only recording. In an era when people are willing to listen to reconstructions of Mahler's Tenth or Elgar's Third Symphony or watch Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina", which was largely orchestrated by others, "Rodrigue et Chimene" is worth investigating for the insights it offers into the development of a major composer.
So what's it like? Obviously, it is no rival for "Pelleas et Melisande" with its unique conception of music drama, but Debussy was a genius of great originality and there is enough of that to be found here as well as hints of the future. Inevitably the biggest influence is Wagner but Debussy's individuality shows through and he is not as overwhelmed by the older composer as French Wagnerians of the 1890s like Chausson were (although there is perhaps an echo in the style of "Rodrigue" of the best of them , Chabrier, another composer who was blighted by Mendes librettos) . The work opens with a ravishing love duet and it is worth hearing the opera for that alone. Debussy was clearly bored by the strutting heroics of Mendes's libretto - the one major piece of action in the work, the death of Chimene's father at the hands of her fiance, Rodrigue, is dealt with in an almost perfunctory fashion. The future composer of "Pelleas" was inevitably much more interested in the expression of the characters' inner feelings - there is a fine monologue about frailty and old age by Rodrigue's father, for instance, and one expressing Rodrigue's inner conflict, torn between love and duty. Unlike "Pelleas" there are plenty of choruses in this piece and many of them seem to look forward to Debussy's strange stage work "Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien", twenty years later, with their hypnotic, swirling arabesques, although the chorus that ends the second act sounds as if it came straight from Debussy's other big early influence, Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov". Denisov's orchestration sounds convincing, although some critics have complained that he uses too much brass. His biggest influence seems to be Debussy's later orchestral work, "Iberia", appropriately enough for the Spanish setting of the opera.
Nagano conducts as if he believes in the opera, and the orchestra plays with a very warm sound, very well recorded. Laurence Dale is an ardent yet vulnerable Rodrigue and Donna Brown is an impassioned, if not always sweet-toned, Chimene. The rest of the cast are native French speakers - Jose van Dam is particularly commanding as Don Diegue, by turns a worldweary old man and a relentlessly stern father. Although this is an uneven work and unlikely to enter the standard repertoire, it is well worth exploring for its frequent touches of characteristically Debussyan magic.

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