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DEBUSSY/ORLEDGE: Poe Operas

CD Button Fan; Hartinger, Dazeley, Villanueva, Dries; Göttinger Symphonie Orchester, Mueller. Texts and translations. Pan Classics PC 10342 (2)

Recordings Poe CD Cover 1216

IN 1908, MET GENERAL MANAGER Giulio Gatti-Casazza commissioned a double bill of Poe-inspired one-acts from Claude Debussy—one of the great might-have-beens in opera history. (Multiple bills were an easier sell at the turn of the twentieth century; the Met launched Puccini’s Trittico in 1918.) Although at one point performances were announced for Paris’s Opéra Comique, very little music was ever even sketched. In 1977, musicologist Carolyn Abbate, then a student at Yale, presentedin New Haven an amalgam of speculative orchestrations of some of the sketches and spoken dialogue from the libretto of The Fall of the House of Usher. The next year, she presented a somewhat expanded and altered version of this material in New York. More work was done by Juan Allende-Blin. Every so often, more material will surface, because Debussy’s widow used to give away single pages of his manuscripts. But very little workable material survives after the opening scene of Usher; for The Devil in the Belfry,there is far less. 

Almost none of the above information is found in the booklet note for this release, which is billed as the two operas “completed and orchestrated by Robert Orledge.” With so little description of what Orledge has done, we are apparently meant to judge the pieces only on what we hear. On those terms, the Belfry is a write-off. It sounds like the early genre scenes of a Massenet opera without ever arriving at anything. There’s some humor in Orledge’s music, but it doesn’t match the humor of the libretto. 

The case of Usher is more complicated. Any Debussyan will be fascinated to hear the opening two hundred bars, which Debussy sketched in short score (that is, with notations about orchestration). Things become more speculative as the piece goes on, far more speculative than in the cases of the completions of Lulu and Turandot, which can more fairly be called “completions.” On first hearing, it’s striking how much of the music sounds unlike anything Debussy ever wrote. On second hearing, it’s more striking that there are a few places, especially in Roderick’s final monologue, where it momentarily does sound like Debussy. But Orledge’s use of harp, contrabassoon, trilling French horns and percussion (the latter both in technique and ubiquity) sounds false. And Debussy, who was known to cut a single bar of music to adjust the larger proportions of a piece, would surely have had more fulfilling musical proportions for these scenes.

Lin Lin Fan displays a fresh, pure voice in both operas. Eugene Villanueva sings with a warm sound as Roderick’s friend, and William Dazeley offers solid technique and good line as Roderick. The text booklet, in addition to its disappointing lack of explication, prints the French text and English translation in different sections and offers an especially stilted English version.  —William R. Braun



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