Você está na página 1de 13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

Claude Debussy's only opera, Pellas et Mlisande is a remarkable setting


of Maurice Maeterlinck's symbolist play. In this article, we explore the play,
the opera, Debussy's unique musical approach, some historically
significant early recordings and selected full recordings that I especially
enjoy.

All operas face a fundamental challenge to blend the abstraction of music with the
tangible specificity of texts, sets, costumes, actors and other theatrical elements.
Great operas manage to unify these disparate elements into a moving and
credible human experience that transcends their respective realms. Dissatisfied
with the musical and dramatic conventions of traditional opera, Claude Debussy
sought and ultimately achieved a far different model for his only work in the
genre.
In 1889, Debussy envisioned his ideal librettist: One who, by saying things by halves,
would allow me to graft my drama onto his and sought characters whose story
belonged to no time or place [and] who submit to life and fate and do not argue. He
further explained that traditional melody-based opera was powerless to interpret the
mobile quality of souls. Rather, he insisted that music was meant for the
inexpressible where speech leaves off, emerging and returning discretely
from shadows. Yet, while the text was to be clear and strong, the music
was not to be dormant. On the contrary, the musical development should
be motivated by the words and must not impede their dramatic action.
After having begun and abandoned four other attempts at opera, he found the vehicle for
his goal when he attended the 1893 Paris premiere of Maurice Maeterlincks Pellas et
Mlisande. As a symbolist, Maeterlinck sought a higher level of meaning than the literal.
Rather, he vaunted suggestion over description, fleeting impressions over narration,
fatalistic destiny over character motivation and nave repetition over definitive
pronouncements, all within a context of mysterious and mystical atmosphere.
Pellas exemplified the shared ideals of playwright and composer. Despite its full length,
the plot is brief, incidents few, characters simple, setting vague. In keeping with
Maeterlincks symbolist creed, the whole tale unfolds with inexorable logic. Golaud, a
http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

1/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

hunter, finds Mlisande in a forest and brings her


home, where her attraction to his brother Pellas
ripens as Golauds jealousy swells. Golaud slays
Pellas, fatally wounds Mlisande, and is left to
ponder the inexplicable meaning of it all, as
Mlisandes newborn takes her place in the cycle
of life.
The flavor emerges in the very first scene. Golaud
wanders in lost while hunting. He spots Mlisande
by a stream and asks why she is weeping. She
cries out not to touch her and he retreats. In response to his questions, she says only that
everyone has hurt her but wont say how and that she has fled but wont say from where.
Golaud spots a crown lying in the stream but she wont let him retrieve it. When Golaud
boasts that he is the grandson of the old king Arkel, she lets down her guard slightly,
marvelling at his beard and stature, and he at her shining eyes, but when he asks her age,
she says she is cold. He convinces her to come home with him, as the night will be cold
and dark. As they leave, she asks where he is going and he replies that he doesnt know,
as he is lost, too. Clearly, their words mean far more than they actually state.
Debussy admired Maeterlinck's approach: The characters try to express themselves like
real people, not in an arbitrary language made up from antiquated tradition. Thus the
language itself is disarmingly direct and plain, with no poetic formatting, scansion or
rhymes, and so simple as to be easily understood with only a few years of high school
French. The characters seem immediate, credible and intensely human, rather than aloof
or noble. Here, for example, are the lines Golaud sings as he first enters:
Je ne pourrai plus sortir de cette fort. Dieu sait jusqu o cette bte
ma men. Je croyais cependent lavoir blesse a mort, et voici des
traces de sang. Mais maintenant je lai perdue de vue. Je crois que je
suis perdue moi-mme et mes chiens ne me retrouvent plus. Je vais
revenir sur mes pas.
(I cant get out of this forest. God knows where that beast led me. I thought
I had fatally wounded it, and here are traces of blood. But now Ive lost
sight of it. I think Im lost and my dogs cant find me. Im going to retrace
my steps.)
With great economy, Maeterlinck paints an efficient portrait of the character who,
despite not being named in the title, really is the driving force of the play hes earthy,
bumbling, intellectually limited, not too articulate, buffeted by fate and above all,
trapped and lost (and not just literally, of course). The words are functional and prosaic,
without any poetic grace, inspiring thoughts or stimulating references. Yet, the expression
is quintessentially French, as achieving an adequate translation into English (or any other
language) seems impossible. The problem is compounded in the context of a musical
setting where scansion must be preserved, often at the expense of the literary flavor.
http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

2/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

Thus the Schirmer libretto translates Mlisande's second


line, Ne me touchez pas o je me jette a l'eau (literally:
Don't touch me or I'll throw myself into the water) as
No, no touch me not or I shall throw me in, which
sacrifices the grace and ease of the original for a stilted
awkwardness that distorts Mlisande's character.
Drawn to the play, Debussy approached Maeterlinck in
October 1893 through Pierre Lous, a mutual friend.
Debussy already had set the climactic love scene, but
Maeterlinck admitted that he had no feeling for music and
relied on Lous to advise him. Only after a first version of
the score was completed in August 1895 did Maeterlinck grant Debussy use of his play.
Rather than create a libretto, Debussy used the play virtually intact. (Paul Griffiths points
out that this in itself was a revolutionary approach in opera history. Debussy abridged
only a few scenes and excised only one an opening chorale in which servants scrub the
castle steps in preparation for an unidentified celebration; while suitably cryptic, its air of
premonition might have spoiled the hushed, atmospheric mystery of the scene in the
forest. (David Grayson notes that the discarded scene also could be seen as disrupting
the otherwise linear narrative, as it could anticipate Golauds marriage to Mlisande, or
cleansing the castle after the murder of Pellas, or the wedding of Mlisandes daughter,
in which cases the first act, the first four acts, or the entire opera would serve as
flashbacks.) At first, Maeterlinck was gratified but later turned on Debussy and even
attacked him with his cane and threatened a duel over the decision to reject casting the
lead with Maeterlincks mistress. Indeed, a week before the premiere Maeterlinck
publicly suddenly decried alleged "arbitrary and absurd cuts [that] made it
incomprehensible [and was] reduced to wishing for its immediate and resounding failure."
He only recanted in 1920 after Debussys death, when he first heard the opera and
proclaimed himself "a happy man," adding, rather remarkably: "For the first time I have
understood my play." A few years later he wrote that he was "completely wrong in this
matter and that [Debussy] was a thousand times right."
Debussy completed Pellas in 1895 but worked on the orchestration for six more years.
After many delays, Pellas finally was produced for the 1902 season of the OpraComique in Paris. (In the meantime, the play had attracted other prominent composers
Faur had provided incidental music for an 1898 London production, Schoenberg was
writing a forty-minute tone poem that conveyed the whole story, and in 1905 Sibelius
would produce a suite for a Finnish production.) Debussy had wanted rapid changes
among the three or four scenes within each act without lowering the curtain, but practical
considerations at the cramped theatre led him to compose transitional orchestral
interludes several minutes in length that now seem an essential part of the conception,
seamlessly unifying each act by summarizing in abstract sound the mood of the prior
scene and preparing the next one.
A dress rehearsal was a near-disaster, as the elite (and hence tradition-bound) invited
audience burst into derisive laughter. (Mary Garden, singing the lead role, recalled: "Here
http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

3/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

was a drama of pure poetry and tragedy and people were giggling and chuckling as if
they were at the Folies Bergere.") While the premiere benefited from a more empathetic
and open audience, critics used the opera as a divining rod for their artistic perspectives.
Conservatives claimed to be bored or baffled, and often
flailed Debussy for having produced a disembodied,
meaningless set of effects and for having abandoned the
traditional melodic, harmonic and rhythmic bases of music
that were deemed necessary to stimulate an emotional
response. One Parisian critic called it, the decomposition
of our art, the emaciation and ruin of our essence, and
another music without form deceptive, sickly, almost
lifeless. Even innovators seemed at a loss to fully
understand the work or to provide meaningful analyses,
yet they sensed and hailed its originality, freshness,
refinement and fusion of musical elements, and
occasionally foresaw its far-reaching aesthetic implications. Even three decades later,
Lon Vallas wrote: It would require a vast vocabulary of special words and metaphors,
of vague literary equivalents and verbal approximations, to express the deep human
significance and the exquisite feeling for nature those eternal elemental qualities with
which the novel score overflows. Andr Messager, the conductor of the premiere, said:
When Melisande asks for the window to be opened in the last scene, she let in not only
the sunset but all modern music.
Debussy claimed that nothing should impede the progress of the drama and that all
musical development not called for by the words would be a mistake While such a
statement really applies with equal force to all opera, his musical contribution to Pellas
goes beyond suitable emotional underlining to take Maeterlincks unassuming plot and
ambiguous text into a deeper realm. Roger Nichols cites as a telling example the
concluding line of the first act, where Mlisande asks Pellas simply, Pourquoi partezvous? (Why do you go?). An actress delivering the line in a play would have to
choose among inflections suggesting curiosity, surprise, disappointment, fear or other
specific meanings. Debussys stylized setting though, abetted by inspecific but highly
suggestive and complex musical hints, combines all of these. Indeed, the very opening of
the act is an intricate intimation of enigma, times past, dark hope, expectancy and
emptiness Roger Nichols aptly calls it a masterpiece of compression. By contrast,
without the abstract evocation of music, a mere stage setting, even with lighting and
sound effects, could not possibly convey all of this. In addition, the associative quality of
music serves to link all that follows in the chain of destiny so dear to Maeterlinck, right up
to the wondrous ending of the final act, a bittersweet, other-worldly leave-taking in Csharp major, the most remote of all keys.
It would be wrong to leave a misimpression that Pellas wallows for its entire 2 hour
duration in a soft, understated monotone of stares and bland conversation. Far from it!
While the older adults (the doctor and Golauds parents Arkel and Genevive) do
restrain their expression, Yniold (Golauds young child by his first marriage) chirps
perkily, the love scenes between Pellas and Mlisande soar with their unbridled passion
http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

4/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

and the grim tone of the final act serves as a foil for Golauds fitfully violent attempts to
assess blame and find meaning in the tragedy he has caused. Indeed, the culmination of
the fourth act, as the lovers spot Golaud and know
they are doomed, is a musical depiction of orgasm,
with ecstatic rising vocal phrases, accelerating
rhythmic exhortations, a smoothly flowing
orchestral release, a strong lingering embrace and
Mlisande too out of breath to gasp her final line as
she flees ("Je n'ai pas / de courage") without a
break. Nor, for that matter, is Debussys writing
bereft of melody. Although he deliberately shuns
the well-developed, memorable repeated phrases
of conventional opera, enticing melodic fragments
constantly flit by. Indeed, Debussy's setting of the text constantly veers between casual
conversation and stylized song. Consider this line of Mlisande in the first scene when
Golaud notices her discarded crown. The first bar follows the natural inflection of
declaratory speech. (Yet note that, consistent with operatic convention, the normally
silent final vowels of "couronne" and "donne" are sung as separate syllables. ) The last
two bars, though, suggest a shred of lovely melody which, typically, is never developed
as it would be in a traditional opera, but rather merely hints at a budding romantic
attraction between the gruff hunter and the enigmatic victim.
In 1909, Debussy wrote that he had striven to remove parasitic elements from his music.
Although the score specifies a large complement of instruments, he constantly uses his
resources for atmosphere and color, not volume. His sparing orchestration invests each
component with a significance that transcends the repetition and filler that bloats so many
standard operas. In lieu of melodic or harmonic development, Debussy frees himself to
use these elements to imply connections, and when a snatch of melody does emerge, it
suggests a spontaneous feeling rather than a pre-arranged structure. Debussy rejected
the use of fixed melodic lines which, to him, presents a single mood that cannot "embrace
the innumerable nuances of feeling that a character passes through." Perhaps the most
extreme example of this comes at the emotional climax of the entire work, as Pellas
professes his love for Mlisande. Nearly all other opera scenes of this type are
bombastic, with soaring music and potent vocals to match the lovers bursting passion.
Yet, aside from in movies, people share such moments in intimacy. Here, Pellas merely
speaks the words, and as Mlisande replies the orchestra keeps entirely silent. The
means are disarmingly simple, yet the impact is overwhelming for its restraint, delicacy,
realism and sheer humanity. As Francois Lesure observed, by "substituting for the roar of
romantic passion the intimate and sensuous voice of understatement, he created a world
in which the intensity of love and agony ... are distilled with devastating clarity and
musical economy."
Debussys economy should not be mistaken for a dearth of ideas or attention. Richard
Langham Smith has provided a fascinating catalog of how a multitude of complex musical
elements and devices pervade the work with a subtle subtext of symbolism and
commentary. Take, for example, Debussys harmonic writing. Beyond the expected use
http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

5/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

of modality to suggest a timeless, ancient setting, Smith notes that Debussy uses the
Lydian mode to suggest aspiration, the Phrygian mode for gloom, whole-note harmony
(lacking a tonic anchor or resolution in any particular direction) to imply being lost,
harmonic stability to suggest a growing relationship, extended ninth chords for longing
and desire, half-diminished chords for sadness and pity, and unresolved or partiallyresolved cadences for emotional imbalance. Even the occasional invocation of keys is
significant to establish emotional resonance: C-major for darkness and F-sharp major (its
near opposite in the circle of fifths) for light. Yet, all these effects are subtle, and avoid
any suggestion of rigid, predictable or reflexive application. In his treatise on The History
of Orchestration, Adam Carse neatly summed up
the magic of Debussys instrumental writing:
In Debussys hands the orchestra became a
super-sensitive instrument. In Pellas and
Mlisande, it murmurs dreamily to itself,
speaks or suggests in veiled tones, swells up
for a moment and again subsides or
dwindles down almost to disappearance.
[This] delicacy and tentative experiments in impressionistic tone-painting
created his own manner of orchestral speech.
Debussys vocal writing is equally striking. In 1909 he wrote that he tried to prove that
when people sing they can remain natural and human without having to look like idiots or
conundrums. (His direct reference was to the emerging trend of verismo, a highlyemotive style of high-power expression that he called vulgar and imbecilic but which, to
be fair, does stem from the considerably wider emotional range of Italian parlance.)
Debussys vocals begin with the common sounds of French speech, to which he adds
subtle inflection, pitch and rhythmic variation to emphasize the meaning, while always
preserving clarity and natural expression. Effective presentation depends upon the
singers linguistic expertise in the French idiom, as the score contains no accent marks, or
even dynamic indications, for the vocal parts. The few exceptions are so rare as to
attract immediate attention. Thus, the only choral passage presents distant sailors lost at
sea (thus symbolically encapsulating the overall theme), and the only overlap of voices
heightens the fear of the lovers discovery by the menacing Golaud. (In all fairness,
though, respect for the natural inflection of speech is a hallmark of all great songwriting
think of the great songs of the past century, from Broadways Old Man River, Oh
What a Beautiful Morning and Maria to the Beatles Yesterday, Michelle and In
My Life they all boast melodies that track the way we would tend to recite the lyrics.)
The structure of Pellas is remarkable as well. Throughout nearly its entire prior 300year history, opera had been organized as alternating passages of spoken or barely sung
recitative that advanced the story and arias in which the narrative paused to enable the
characters to elaborate their feelings (and display their vocal technique, of course).
Pellas, though, has no arias at all, instead presenting each scene as a continuous flow
that makes no distinction between the functions of story and personality. And as if to
tease us, Debussy inserts a sole snatch of true song at the opening of act III as Mlisande
http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

6/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

combs her long hair one brief verse and chorus, largely unaccompanied, of an ancient
ballad, thus not only defining Melisandes ageless purity but also serving as a reminder of
the operas distance from conventional writing. (Actually, Verdi ended his final opera,
Falstaff, with a related gesture, where he emphasized his innovative avoidance of
traditional arias by concluding the plot and then appending a formal fugue, perhaps the
least likely component of any opera.)
Beyond its intrinsic fascination,
perhaps the most intriguing aspect of
The opening motif timeless mystery
Debussys inspired structure has
been the persistent critical comparisons with Wagner. Although Debussy had fallen under
Wagners spell when he saw Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth in 1889, and while, as
Griffiths notes, his luminous (as if "lit from behind") orchestration of Pellas owes much
to Parsifal, he came to disparage Wagners use of leitmotifs (that is, short, recurring
melodic fragments associated with a character or situation) as simplistic calling cards
needed to guide those who otherwise would be lost in a score, and claimed that his own
approach would be far different.
Yet, Pellas is full of motifs, including one for each of the three principal characters.
Some uses tend to be nearly as literal
as Wagners Mlisandes rarely
changes, perhaps reflecting the
The "Golaud" motif, emulating a hunting horn
constancy of her persona, and
trumpets scream a fragment of Golauds as he slays Pellas. Other uses are more subtle
Act I ends (after Mlisande and Pellas are together for the first time) with fragments
of the Mlisande and Golaud motifs, as if to suggest that Golaud is watching over such
situations, and when Mlisande tells Golaud in Act II that she doesnt know why shes
sad, the accompaniment is informed by the Pellas motif, as if to provide an answer.
While theorists can speculate as to the two composers similar use of motives, the
differences between their overall aesthetics are readily heard. Wagner is more overtly
theatrical, with his singers often straining at the top of their registers to deliver stentorian
declamation at a sustained fever pitch, while Debussys mostly dwell at a conversational
level with understated nuance
and only occasionally swell with
The "Mlisande" motif, soft and fragile
emphasis. We have already
noted Debussys embrace of natural speech and efficient music, while Wagners
approach to his words is poetic and to his music symphonic, with strong harmonic
development and many sections of text (which he wrote with the music in mind, of
course) shaped by the music. Indeed, his music can, and often does, stand on its own, as
in the many orchestral excerpts from his operas that are heard in concert and on record,
whereas Debussys music is intimately tied to and supports the pre-existing text even
the interludes between scenes would be meaningless by themselves (and are never
performed in isolation).
Above all else, Wagners motifs seem more emblematic and his music more prescriptive
http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

7/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

in guiding listeners to a single intended meaning and urging them to become swept away
in a tide of heightened sensation, whereas Debussys is far more evocative and
suggestive, appealing to those who seek an individualized interior reality. Perhaps the
ultimate proof of this difference lies in the general
agreement among opera buffs and commentators as
to the single referential meaning of each of Wagners
The "Pellas" motif, leaping with youthful
exhuberance
leitmotifs, whereas Debussys, like Pellas itself, are
largely shrouded in ambiguity. Indeed, while commentators generally agree on the
thematic fragments associated with Mlisande and Pellas, they tend to depart
considerably beyond that. Thus, one of the three major motifs in the introduction is called
fate by Felix Abrahamian but Golauds theme by Michael Bremner, and the two
motifs that permeate Act V are labeled sorrow and Mlisandes gentleness by
Lawrence Gilman but Mlisandes infant and forgiveness by Roland Emmanuel.
Debussy himself spoke little of his aesthetic intentions, and then only in epigrams.
Perhaps the closest he came to a self-analysis was in a letter he wrote to the OpraComique for a revival of Pellas. He stated that he hated classical development, whose
beauty was merely technical, but desired music of freedom, not confined to reproducing
nature, but devoted to the mysterious affinity between nature and the imagination. He felt
that the Wagnerian formula could not serve as a model for future development and
sought his own course in which a characters feelings could not be expressed in
antiquated traditional melody but required a new concept of dramatic melody, for which
the sensitiveness of the suggestive language of the Maeterlinck play was an ideal vehicle.
Ernest Ansermet, the great Swiss conductor and exponent of French music, whose
perception was abetted by his mathematical background, expanded Debussys analysis
of his operatic style in album notes to his superb 1966 recording:
Debussys essential characteristic [was] his unfailing ability to express a
musical idea in the freshest and most direct terms, without bothering to
develop it thematically as the classics did, and without letting it run away
with him as the romantics delighted in doing. This need of direct expression
which is constantly in a state of conception implies a constant fund of
sensibility which is seen in a maximum of liberty in melodic behavior and
harmonic formation[, ] thus producing a dialectic which never
becomes a rhetoric.
In a mixture of modesty and pride, Debussy had written: I do not pretend to have
discovered everything in Pellas; but I have tried to trace a path that others may follow,
broadening it with individual discoveries which will, perhaps, free dramatic music from
the heavy yoke under with it has existed for so long. Yet, having forged a radical new
course in Pellas that seemed to burst with further possibilities to liberate the genre from
the formal structures and conventions of the prior three centuries, Debussy never pursued
it himself in another opera. That would be left to others.

http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

8/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

The history of Pellas recordings began a mere two years after the premiere when
Debussy himself accompanied Mary Garden, who created the role of Mlisande, in a
two-minute excerpt from the opera (and some unrelated songs). Before beginning
rehearsals, Debussy played through the entire score on a piano, singing all the parts
himself, and cautioned, "Everyone must forget that he is a singer before he can sing my
music." Indeed, a tiny Scottish singer trained in France, Garden was known more as an
expressive vocal actress than as a pure singer. Debussy had praised her art, recalling that
he had watched in awe during rehearsals as little by little the character of Mlisande
took shape in her. Her gentle voice I had heard in my innermost
soul, with its faltering tenderness, the captivating charm which I had
hardly dared to hope for. Unfortunately, they chose only an
abridgement of Mlisandes ballad from the opening of Act III,
from which its hard to infer how she must have sung the more
typical passages of her part. Her voice seems
tremulous and chesty no innocent ingnue here,
but rather a worldly feminist vision. Yet the
Mary Garden
-- the first Melisande
impression may stem from deficiencies of the
recording, since Debussys strict pianism, shorn of overtones, sounds
quite boxy and inexpressive and is afflicted with mechanical flutter.
Gardens successor as Mlisande, Maggie Teyte, assumed the role in
1908. She later recalled that she had studied the part with Debussy
every day for nearly half a year, and that he was an exacting and often temperamental
teacher. Although Teyte never recorded the role, she did cut 14 of Debussys songs in
1936 with Alfred Cortot (and several more in the 1940s with Gerald Moore), in which
she reveals a confident, beautifully balanced voice poised between pure tone and tasteful
expression that must have immeasurably enlivened her interpretation.
Maggie Teyte

The most historically important Pellas recording came in 1928 when Hector Dufranne,
who created the role of Golaud, revived his part for a French Columbia set conducted
by Georges Truc. While rehearsing the 1906 revival, Debussy, who
was generally dissatisfied with productions of his opera, had written to
Dufranne: You [and Felix Vieuille, the first Pellas] are almost the
only two who have maintained your understanding of my artistic aims
in Pellas; thats why I ask you to go on defending this work, which
others dont seem to love as much as you. Fortunately, the 45 minute
set didnt attempt to abridge the
opera, but rather presented the richly
melodic interlude following Act III,
Hector Dufranne
-- the first Golaud
scene 2 and five scenes intact,
including one especially bold and surprising choice the
lengthy and rather dry narrative of Act I, Scene 2, in
which Genevieve and Arkel read and comment on a
letter Pellas has received from Golaud. While shorn of
most of its orchestral prelude, the opening scene is a
revelation, as Dufranne and Marthe Nespoulos deliver
http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

9/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

their lines conversationally with precise rhythm, diction and enunciation, finely graded
dynamics and an uncannily attenuated yet subtly affecting emotional range even when
Golaud boasts of his pedigree or when Mlisande threatens to throw herself into the
stream. While this approach may sound incurably bland by accustomed operatic
standards, apparently this is how Debussy envisioned his work, and indeed it tends to
sound right as exemplifying his professed aesthetic outlook, as well as the fatalism of
the symbolist movement from which the libretto emerged (together with the pallid, frail
and pervasive sadness of the pre-Raphalite movement that preceded it). The other cast
members, while not directly associated with the composer, were key early interpreters of
their roles and, as Allan Altman noted, were all Parisian singers, and thus firmly
ensconced in the style Debussy had in mind when he wrote all his vocal work, including
Pellas.
A rival set of 14 sides conducted by Pierro Coppola had been issued in 1927 by French
HMV. Surprisingly, only a few of the scenes overlap with the Columbia album and five
of the interludes are included, so between the two sets we have over half of the opera.
All three HMV leads (Charles Panzera as Pellas, Yvonne Brothier as Mlisande and
Vanni-Marcoux as Golaud) were well-known stars and present more forward and
outwardly expressive characterizations, while Coppola leads with greater rhythmic and
dynamic variety and emphasis, thus providing a nice stylistic complement to the Columbia
set. Both are combined on a VAI CD.
The first recording of the full opera was made in April and May 1941 in Paris, where the
Occupation perhaps stimulated the artists to preserve and disseminate this most
cherished object of their national culture. Theirs is not just a recording of the music and
vocals but a fine realization, a team effort that respects the score while presenting the
interrelationships among living characters with both care and empathy. The pedigree was
clear not only were the singers current stars of the
Opra-Comique, but both Jacques Jansen (Pellas)
and Irne Joachim (Mlisande) trained under Georges
Viseur, who had served as vocal coach for the
premiere, and Joachim was further guided in her role
by studying with Mary Garden. From the very outset,
the sheer humanity of the conception is unmistakable
in the introduction conductor Roger Desormire leans
into the music, gently coaxing the Pellas and
Mlisande themes out of the earthy continuity of the
orchestral fabric and freely applies organic swells of tempo and dynamics. The
characters, too, are deeply felt without exaggeration Joachim alters the quality of her
voice to paint a portrait of reticence and privacy, Germain Cernay (Genevive) reads
each phrase of Golauds letter with grandmotherly warmth, and when Henri Etcheverry
(Golaud) discovers that Mlisandes ring is missing, he doesnt suddenly explode in
anger, as in nearly all other interpretations, but rather darkens with concern and thereby
deepens his character beyond the dumb brute who is often routinely depicted. Even Leila
ben Sedira transforms the role of Yniold, Golauds prepubescent son by a former
marriage, from screechy annoyance to poignancy. The overall impact is to enable us, by
http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

10/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

merely listening, to infer the missing visual element from the tightly interwoven
relationships among singers and musicians and thus to reconstitute much of the effect of
the staged opera and the composers conception. As Jensen recalled in 1984: I confess
that I dont listen to this recording any more. I carry it with me now, it is part of me, it
dwells in me to go with me on that long voyage to the fountain-head of Debussy.
Whether a tribute to the lasting qualities of the 1941 recording, or fear of the burden of
issuing a work of more curiosity value than popularity
that required 40 12-inch 78 sides, no further complete
versions appear to have been made until the LP era. A
1951 version by Ansermet and his Suisse Romande
Orchestra boasted a fine cast, dynamic sutlety and a
detailed recording, but was superceded by the greater
atmosphere of their stereo remake, noted below. For
a 1957 mono EMI set by Andr Cluytens and the
Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Franaise,
Jansen reprised his role as Pellas, joined by Victoria
de los Angeles as Mlisande, Grard Souzay as Golaud and Pierre Froumenty as Arkel,
but the result seems more flat and perfunctory than open-ended and neutral. The first act
gets off to a slow start and seems suspended in time, but then never evolves from
primordial forest and tentative introductions to the heady freedom of Pellas and raging
jealousy of Golaud, but remains mired in a deliberate and even plodding homogeny. Both
the playing and singing throughout is sweet and beautiful, but too much so fine for the
love scenes, but the excessive pervasive warmth ruins the balance of stylized myth and
natural realism, attenuating the climaxes, blunting the impact of the more dramatic
episodes, and suppressing the grace and clarity of Debussys concept, as well as the
other-worldly mystery with which the entire work is suffused. The LP edition was further
compromised by poorly-planned side breaks that fragmented all but the final act.
For nearly all the other works Ive discussed on this website Ive tried to listen to as
many recordings as possible, so as to provide informed recommendations, albeit highly
subjective and personal ones. Here, though, I havent, and for a selfish reason. My
appreciation of most music grows with familiarity details emerge, structures are
clarified, subtleties of interpretation become significant and fascinating. But something can
be lost as well. A work like Pellas et Mlisande mesmerizes with perpetual freshness,
delicacy and surprises that repetition, study and analysis can blunt. I love this special
work far too much to risk spoiling my ability to experience it anew. So while I have
heard several of the stereo recordings, Ill conclude with just two that, for me, exemplify
the poles of inspired interpretive approaches to this unique work.
One comes from a rather unlikely source. Herbert von Karajan was hardly known for
the warmth and humanity of his interpretations. On the contrary, many came to regard
him as at best objective and at worst mechanical and superficial. Yet, his 1978 EMI
Pellas with Frederica von Stade (Mlisande), Richard Stillwell (Pellas), Jos van
Damm (Golaud), Ruggerio Raimondi (Arkel), Nadine Denise (Genevive) and the Berlin
Philharmonic (hardly a French artist in the group) emerges as unabashedly romantic. The
http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

11/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

orchestral part is bathed in a luminous aura and the


vocalists, while generally adhering to the indicated
rhythms, constantly extend final notes to which
Debussy assigns the same short values as their
predecessors. Somewhat slow (162 minutes,
compared to others' 148 [1951 Ansermet], 153
[1964 Ansermet], 151 {Desormiere] and 154
[Boulez]), it never flags but rather presents us with a
deeply empathetic fatalistic tragedy that I find wholly
engrossing. To complete the irony here, many have cited this set as Wagnerian I can
only wonder what Debussy, the self-proclaimed musicien franais, would have said
about that!
For me, though, the recording of Pellas that comes closest to realizing Debussys ideal
came from Ernest Ansermet, who (like Debussy) strove in all his work for clarity,
efficiency, precision and proportion, and never more so than here. In the notes to his
1964 remake of Pellas with Erna Spoorenberg (Mlisande), Camille Maurane
(Pellas), George London (Golaud), Guus Hoekman (Arkel), Josephine Veasey
(Genevive) and his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Decca), he cited as his challenge
bringing out the continuity of the melos, scattered between the instruments and the
voices, and giving the vocal line its true value
without preventing it from being bathed in the
orchestral harmony that clarifies its meaning. Like
the pioneering 1941 set a generation before,
Ansermets forces live and breathe the score, but
with a difference the recording is so detailed as
to add a further layer of meaning to enhance
Debussys art. The soundstage is thoroughly
convincing, with voices slightly moving and
receding with the action, and atmospheric
reverberation reflecting the settings and moods
the sound of the grotto where Golaud threatens Pellas is truly terrifying without being
overdone. Not only are the instrumental textures and their interplay fully displayed, but
the timbres of the voices add complexity to the characters, tracing Mlisandes
transformation from scared waif to viable lover and then reverting to a wimpering cipher
on her deathbed. While clearly respecting the French theatrical tradition of diffident
lyrical expression, the vocal acting runs the gamut from the wrenching poignancy of
Mlisande quietly sobbing, Je ne suis pas heureuse (I am not happy) and piteously
dissembling as she tries to explain the loss of her heirloom ring, to Golauds frighteningly
intense demented tirade (abetted by snarling brass) and Pelleas's ardent profession of
love, both in Act IV, scene 2. (The only weak link in the cast is an infantile-sounding
Yniold, admittedly a difficult and unrewarding role.) The orchestral playing is superb,
beautiful without lapsing into affectation, and Ansermet leads it all with sustained focus on
presenting the external content while enabling us to explore its implications, keeping a
firm but evolving grip on the emotional vicissitudes, ideally balancing stylized artistry and
underlying emotion, and selecting tempos so right that the whole thing seems to
http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

12/13

7/8/2016

Classical Notes - Classical Classics - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, By Peter Gutmann

transcend time.
Ansermets recording is a remarkable achievement. Perhaps, then, he should have the
last word: [Pellas] realizes at once that miracle which the musical theatre has always
tried to produce as the highest ideal: the perfect identification of a musical essence with
its poetic substance.
In addition to my own heart and ears, I am indebted for this piece primarily to the
extremely insightful articles by Roger Nichols and Richard Langham Smith in the
wonderful volume devoted to Pellas in the Opera Handbook series (Cambridge
University Press, 1989), Lon Vallas's Claude Debussy - His Life and Works (Oxford
University Press, 1935), The Theories of Claude Debussy (Oxford University Press,
1929, reprinted by Dover, 1967), the article by Paul Griffiths ("The Twentieth Century to
1945") in the Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, Roger Parker, editor (Oxford
University Press, 1994), Michael Rose's The Birth of an Opera Fifteen
Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck (Norton, 2013), the notes by Felix
Abrahamian to the Karajan LP set (Angel SZCX-3885) and the EMI CD reissue of the
Desormiere 78s (EMI CHS 7 61038 2), the notes by Allan Altman to the VAI CD of
the 1927 and 1928 excerpts (VAIA 1093), and the notes by Ernest Ansermet and
Michael Bremner to the Ansermet stereo LP set (London OSA-1397).

Copyright 2014 by Peter Gutmann

For a note about the illustrations, please click here.

copyright 1998-2014 by Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.

http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics2/pelleas.html

13/13