“How will this world get along with these two poor creatures?”
Is there such a thing as too much subtlety?
I confess, I am a “Pelléastre,” a fan of Debussy’s opera “Pelléas et Mélisande.” No other staged musical work has quite that elusive atmosphere of cosmic menace, human passion, and existential uncertainty. A five-act opera with no arias, subtle psychological “leitmotifs,” a dynamic range heavy on the p, pp, and ppp, with lots of silence and little stage action may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Since the work’s controversial premiere in 1902, it holds a place among devotees without ever entering the “standard” repertoire, and that’s probably a good thing. “By a singular irony, this public, which cries out for something new, is the very one that shows alarm and scoffs whenever one tries to wean it from old habits and customary humdrum noises.”
“Take care, we do not know how far the soul extends about men,” said Maurice Maeterlinck, the Belgian symbolist author whose play (1892) was set by Debussy He used no libretto, instead setting the play word for word with only a minimum of cuts (approved by the playwright) that sharpen the drama’s focus. No one, especially the heroine of the title, seems to know “who” they are, “where” they are, or “why” they’re there: classic ingredients of existentialism, decades before Camus and Sartre made their contributions to French literary angst. The characters are in the grip of nameless huge forces that control and crush them. The drama is interior.
In mythical Allemonde, while on a hunting expedition Golaud finds a beautiful young princess, Mélisande, lost in the forest. She is afraid of him and, seemingly, everything else. She has lost her crown, and recoils from his touch. He reassures her, taking her back to his castle and marrying her. However, Golaud’s half-brother Pelléas falls in love with her too. At first childishly innocent and uncomprehending, the adulterous pair grow closer and closer, activating the fatal jealousy that controls Golaud.
Debussy wished for years to find a suitable literary collaborator for an opera. On his wish list was one who would create a theater piece so discreet that Debussy could “graft my dream on to his” without excessive rhetoric or melodrama. He found musical equivalents for the vagueness of the plot with little “touches” of music linked by a mysterious bond and a gift of “luminous intuition,” just as Debussy felt Mussorgsky had done in Russian music. Forty-one rehearsals with the cast were held, not counting orchestral rehearsals. Can you imagine any opera house today lavishing that much time on a production?
In “Pelléas” silence becomes a key element of expression: “amid so much silence, a blade of grass stirred from its sleep makes a really menacing noise.” The French language is set in a way that most resembles speech inflection, while retaining pitch and duration; the triplet is often used for its fluidity.
“ . . . the most beautiful voice in he world may be unconsciously fatal to the individual expression of a given character.” Debussy’s first Mélisande was Mary Garden, a Scottish mezzo-soprano, whose oddly accented French gave an appropriate otherworldliness to the role. She also generated laughter and derisive hoots at the premiere with the repeated line “Je ne suis pas heureuse!” (I’m not happy.) Apparently, part of the audience was in agreement.
“The scenic realization of a work of art, no matter how beautiful, is always contrary to the inner vision which drew it from its alternatives of doubt and enthusiasm.” At the premiere, the stage always had at least one scrim (often multiple layers of them) between the action and the audience, creating the mysterious half-lights so essential to the mood. The footlights were also abolished, a very radical idea at the time.
“Applause—aggressive noises resembling the sounds of a distant fête where you are but the parasite of a glory which does not always prove to be what you desired. For to succeed in the theater most often implies a response to anonymous desires and assimilated emotion.” These harsh but telling words by Debussy show to what extent he was ill-suited to “play the game” of theatrical production.
“Pelléas” requires that we immerse ourselves deeply into another realm, one to which we may not be accustomed. But so does Wagner, Bellini, and Mozart. It’s all very foreign to our daily experience. And isn’t that why we turn to the arts anyway?
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs