Classical Notes
title - Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande

Claude Debussy's only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande 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. treble clef design 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. Classical Classics 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 Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande. 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 naïve repetition over definitive pronouncements, all within a context of mysterious and mystical atmosphere.

Pelléas 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 Maeterlinck’s symbolist creed, the whole tale unfolds with inexorable logic. Claude Debussy Golaud, a hunter, finds Mélisande in a forest and brings her home, where her attraction to his brother Pelléas ripens as Golaud’s jealousy swells. Golaud slays Pelléas, fatally wounds Mélisande, and is left to ponder the inexplicable meaning of it all, as Mélisande’s 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 Mélisande 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 won’t say how and that she has fled but won’t say from where. Golaud spots a crown lying in the stream but she won’t 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 doesn’t 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 forêt. Dieu sait jusqu’ où cette bête m’a mené. Je croyais cependent l’avoir blessée a mort, et voici des traces de sang. Mais maintenant je l’ai perdue de vue. Je crois que je suis perdue moi-même et mes chiens ne me retrouvent plus. Je vais revenir sur mes pas.
(I can’t 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 I’ve lost sight of it. I think I’m lost and my dogs can’t find me. I’m 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 – he’s 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. Maurice Maeterlinck 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. Thus the Schirmer libretto translates Mélisande's second line, “Ne me touchez pas où 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 Mélisande's character.

Drawn to the play, Debussy approached Maeterlinck in October 1893 through Pierre Louÿs, a mutual friend. Debussy already had set the climactic love scene, but Maeterlinck admitted that he had no feeling for music and relied on Louÿs 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 Golaud’s marriage to Mélisande, or cleansing the castle after the murder of Pelléas, or the wedding of Mélisande’s 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 Maeterlinck’s 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 Debussy’s 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 Pelléas in 1895 but worked on the orchestration for six more years. After many delays, Pelléas finally was produced for the 1902 season of the Opéra-Comique in Paris. (In the meantime, the play had attracted other prominent composers – Fauré 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 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. The orchestral score (Dover reissue cover) 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, Léon 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.” André 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 Pelléas goes beyond suitable emotional underlining to take Maeterlinck’s unassuming plot and ambiguous text into a deeper realm. Roger Nichols cites as a telling example the concluding line of the first act, where Mélisande asks Pelléas simply, “Pourquoi partez-vous?” (“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. Debussy’s 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 C-sharp major, the most remote of all keys.

It would be wrong to leave a misimpression that Pelléas wallows for its entire 2½ hour duration in a soft, understated monotone of stares and bland conversation. Far from it! While the older adults (the doctor and Golaud’s parents Arkel and Geneviève) do restrain their expression, Yniold (Golaud’s young child by his first marriage) chirps perkily, the love scenes between Pelléas and Mélisande soar with their unbridled passion and the grim tone of the final act serves as a foil for Golaud’s fitfully violent attempts to assess blame and find meaning in the tragedy he has caused. The climax of Act IV -- Golaud is about to pounce on the lovers 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 Mélisande 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 Debussy’s 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 Mélisande 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 "donnée" 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 Pelléas professes his love for Mélisande. 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, Pelléas merely speaks the words, and as Mélisande 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."

Debussy’s 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, Debussy’s harmonic writing. Beyond the expected use 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 partially-resolved 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,Debussy Adam Carse neatly summed up the magic of Debussy’s instrumental writing:

In Debussy’s hands the orchestra became a super-sensitive instrument. In Pelléas and Mélisande, 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.

Debussy’s 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 highly-emotive 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.) Debussy’s 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 Broadway’s “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 Pelléas is remarkable as well. Throughout nearly its entire prior 300-year 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). Pelléas, 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 Mélisande combs her long hair – one brief verse and chorus, largely unaccompanied, of an ancient ballad, thus not only defining Melisande’s ageless purity but also serving as a reminder of the opera’s 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,
The opening motif
The opening motif – timeless mystery
perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Debussy’s inspired structure has been the persistent critical comparisons with Wagner. Although Debussy had fallen under Wagner’s 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 Pelléas owes much to Parsifal, he came to disparage Wagner’s 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, Pelléas is full of motifs, including one for each of the three principal characters.
The Golaud motif
The "Golaud" motif, emulating a hunting horn
Some uses tend to be nearly as literal as Wagner’s – Mélisande’s rarely changes, perhaps reflecting the constancy of her persona, and trumpets scream a fragment of Golaud’s as he slays Pelléas. Other uses are more subtle – Act I ends (after Mélisande and Pelléas are together for the first time) with fragments of the Mélisande and Golaud motifs, as if to suggest that Golaud is watching over such situations, and when Mélisande tells Golaud in Act II that she doesn’t know why she’s sad, the accompaniment is informed by the Pelléas 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,
The Melisande motif
The "Mélisande" motif, soft and fragile
while Debussy’s mostly dwell at a conversational level with understated nuance and only occasionally swell with emphasis. We have already noted Debussy’s embrace of natural speech and efficient music, while Wagner’s 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 Debussy’s 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, Wagner’s motifs seem more emblematic and his music more prescriptive in guiding listeners to a single intended meaning and urging them to become swept away in a tide of heightened sensation, whereas Debussy’s is far more evocative and suggestive, appealing to those who seek an individualized interior reality.
The Pelleas motif
The "Pelléas" motif, leaping with youthful exhuberance
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 Wagner’s leitmotifs, whereas Debussy’s, like Pelléas itself, are largely shrouded in ambiguity. Indeed, while commentators generally agree on the thematic fragments associated with Mélisande and Pelléas, they tend to depart considerably beyond that. Thus, one of the three major motifs in the introduction is called “fate” by Felix Abrahamian but “Golaud’s theme” by Michael Bremner, and the two motifs that permeate Act V are labeled “sorrow” and “Mélisande’s gentleness” by Lawrence Gilman but “Mélisande’s 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 Opéra-Comique for a revival of Pelléas. 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 character’s 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 Debussy’s analysis of his operatic style in album notes to his superb 1966 recording:

Debussy’s 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 Pelléas; 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 Pelléas 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.

The history of Pelléas recordings began a mere two years after the premiere when Debussy himself accompanied Mary Garden, who created the role of Mélisande, 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 Mélisande took shape in her.
Mary Garden - the first Melisande
Mary Garden
-- the first Melisande
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 Mélisande’s ballad from the opening of Act III, from which it’s hard to infer how she must have sung the more typical passages of her part.
Maggie Teyte
Maggie Teyte
Her voice seems tremulous and chesty – no innocent ingénue here, but rather a worldly feminist vision. Yet the impression may stem from deficiencies of the recording, since Debussy’s strict pianism, shorn of overtones, sounds quite boxy and inexpressive and is afflicted with mechanical flutter.

Garden’s successor as Mélisande, 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 Debussy’s 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.

The most historically important Pelléas 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.
Hector Dufranne - the first Golaud
Hector Dufranne
-- the first Golaud
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 Pelléas] are almost the only two who have maintained your understanding of my artistic aims in Pelléas; that’s why I ask you to go on defending this work, which others don’t seem to love as much as you.” The 1927 HMV and 1928 Columbia sets (VAI CD reissue cover) Fortunately, the 45 minute set didn’t attempt to abridge the opera, but rather presented the richly melodic interlude following Act III, 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 Pelléas has received from Golaud. While shorn of most of its orchestral prelude, the opening scene is a revelation, as Dufranne and Marthe Nespoulos deliver 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 Mélisande 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-Raphaëlite 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 Pelléas.

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 Pelléas, Yvonne Brothier as Mélisande 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. Roger Desormiere conducts Pelleas et Melisande (EMI CD reissue cover) The pedigree was clear – not only were the singers current stars of the Opéra-Comique, but both Jacques Jansen (Pelléas) and Irène Joachim (Mélisande) 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 Desormière leans into the music, gently coaxing the Pelléas and Mélisande 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 (Geneviève) reads each phrase of Golaud’s letter with grandmotherly warmth, and when Henri Etcheverry (Golaud) discovers that Mélisande’s ring is missing, he doesn’t 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, Golaud’s prepubescent son by a former marriage, from screechy annoyance to poignancy. The overall impact is to enable us, by 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 composer’s conception. As Jensen recalled in 1984: “I confess that I don’t 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,Andre Cluytens conducts Pelleas et Melisande (Angel LP set cover) 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 André Cluytens and the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, Jansen reprised his role as Pelléas, joined by Victoria de los Angeles as Mélisande, Gérard 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 Pelléas 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 Debussy’s 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 I’ve discussed on this website I’ve tried to listen to as many recordings as possible, so as to provide informed recommendations, albeit highly subjective and personal ones. Here, though, I haven’t, 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 Pelléas et Mélisande 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, I’ll 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 conducts Pelleas et Melisande (Angel LP set cover) 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 Pelléas with Frederica von Stade (Mélisande), Richard Stillwell (Pelléas), José van Damm (Golaud), Ruggerio Raimondi (Arkel), Nadine Denise (Geneviève) and the Berlin Philharmonic (hardly a French artist in the group) emerges as unabashedly romantic. The 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 français, would have said about that!

For me, though, the recording of Pelléas that comes closest to realizing Debussy’s 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 Pelléas with Erna Spoorenberg (Mélisande), Camille Maurane (Pelléas), George London (Golaud), Guus Hoekman (Arkel), Josephine Veasey (Geneviève) 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,Ernest Ansermet conducts Pelleas et Melisande (London LP set cover) 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, Ansermet’s 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 Debussy’s 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 Pelléas 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 Mélisande’s 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 Mélisande 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 Golaud’s 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 transcend time.

Ansermet’s recording is a remarkable achievement. Perhaps, then, he should have the last word: “[Pelléas] 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 Pelléas in the Opera Handbook series (Cambridge University Press, 1989), Léon 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).

Peter Gutmann

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