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François-Xavier Roth’s Pelléas et Mélisande ‘breaks hearts’

François-Xavier Roth’s new recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with Les Siècles comes out on Harmonia Mundi on 4 March, and has already won rave reviews. The recording is taken from the Daniel Jeanneteau’s Opéra de Lille production, which was originally due to premiere in March 2021, but was only ever streamed due to pandemic audience restrictions.

Reviews of the CD

Classical Voice San Francisco

François-Xavier Roth’s Pelléas et Mélisande Breaks Your Heart

‘Roth consistently keeps his orchestra flowing but in check. Only once, when Pelléas and Mélisande’s lips unite right before Golaud reveals himself, does the orchestra threaten to cover the singers. The effect is intentional; it is the one moment in the opera where the three main characters are all so swept up in their fate that all sense of hope vanishes. Otherwise, Roth leaves us so reveling in the instrumental sonorities that every note the characters sing – every unspoken thought and feeling – is pregnant with meaning.’

The Times

At last, Debussy’s strange opera makes sense

‘Debussy’s only completed opera is well known for taking place in the kingdom of the strange: a land without any hummable tunes or anything approaching an aria, where action is minimal and characters get a kick from kissing long locks of hair or visiting a pool of stagnant water smelling of death.

‘Nonetheless, the curiosities of Pelléas et Mélisande, constructed on the shifting sands of Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama and the 20th century’s first landmark opera, make a lot more sense in this latest recording, based on a Covid-hit 2021 production from Lille.

‘Many reasons for the new clarity stem from the use of French period instruments, circa 1900. François-Xavier Roth and his ensemble Les Siècles sought these out not through academic purity. Specialists in the field, they knew how Debussy’s score significantly gains in purpose and beauty with the resinous growl of gut-stringed double basses, the pallid beauty of vibrato-free violins, or the earthy aura of woodwinds and brass built before standardised modern instruments arrived.’

The Guardian

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande review – Roth and Les Siècles make beguiling opera more miraculous than ever

‘Roth’s performance, which stems from a production at Opéra de Lille last year, differs from all its predecessors by having the period instruments of Les Siècles in the pit.

‘In an opera whose drama depends so much on the minutest nuances of the word-setting and the web of orchestral motifs underpinning it, the use of gut strings and turn-of-the-20th-century woodwind and brass adds an extra dimension to the expressive palette. The gains are obvious right from the opening, where the dark, slowly churning strings, playing without vibrato, conjure up the atmosphere of ambiguity and veiled menace that pervades the whole work, right through to the trickle of woodwind tears with which it ends.

‘Roth makes Debussy’s handling of orchestral colour seem more magical than ever, and even though his orchestra lacks the sheer tonal heft of a modern band, the great climaxes, such as Golaud’s explosion of rage in the third act, or Pelléas and Mélisande’s final meeting in the last scene of the fourth, seem more intense than ever, while the moments of quiet lyricism are wrapped in textures of extraordinary delicacy.’

Classical Music Daily

‘Les Siècles, the very important orchestra under the direction of François-Xavier Roth, understands this work very well, and plays with a precision and attention to detail that is truly inspired. The orchestral colour is integral to this work and underpins a lot of the often-veiled tension.

Reviews of the live stream

Opera magazine, July 2021

‘François-Xavier Roth and his period orchestra Les Siècles bring new insights at every turn, and to judge by this performance their forthcoming recording should be a thrilling document. Debussy described Parsifal as one of the most beautiful sound monuments in music, but Roth makes the case for another.’

Opera Traveller ‘Roth conducted a reading that was much more passionate and fuller of surging feeling than we often hear in this work. His tempi were swift, not afraid to push forward and reveal surging emotions underneath. Naturally, the period instruments made for a fascinating sound world – the strings especially, with the sparing use of vibrato bringing an austerity to the texture, that lent itself well to the darkness of the score’s nocturnal tinta. When the textures brightened, as in those cries of ‘clarté’, the distinctive colours of the period winds gave the orchestral sound a rightness that felt unmistakable. The quality of the orchestral playing was simply outstanding.’

‘Superbly played, conducted with great intelligence, and very satisfyingly sung, we were given a staging that made us search deep for answers in ourselves and in the work. Jeanneteau gives us a staging that is both thought-provoking and surprising, offering us a vision of the work that lends itself ideally its enigmatic nature. With excellent diction across the board, this is a Pelléas that must be seen.’

Paris Update

‘Conductor François-Xavier Roth brings out all the diverse colors and textures of Debussy’s orchestration with his orchestra Les Siècles, which uses period instruments from the end of the 19th century. This is a thrilling operatic experience.’


François-Xavier Roth discusses Pelléas et Mélisande