"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 31, 2016

Best 20th Century Operas (1): Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)

At the start I have to make a confession: I am not an "opera fan." I prefer abstract symphonic and chamber music (in my view the highest peak attainable in music) to music depending on words and stories. The only operas I could stomach so far were those by Mozart (Mozart's music always is complex and in his last five operas his characterization is deep and subtle), and single arias from Baroque operas by for example Handel and Vivaldi (but not the whole operas because their stories are too silly and the characters too flat). I can't stand 19th c. belcanto (Donizetti, Bellini), Grand Opera (Meyerbeer), German Romanticism (Weber), Verdi or Wagner (all those grown-up people strutting around with card-board shields and spears and pretending to be mythical deities, in static but blown-up stories that move at a glacial pace and never seem to end).

But then I discovered 20th c. opera. From Richard Strauss via Alban Berg to John Adams, these modern operas are mature and serious, and I discovered quite a few that are simply fascinating. What also makes a difference is that 20th c. composers were in the first place symphonists and not opera specialists, so that the orchestra is center stage - the symphonic aspect is often more important than the singers. In addition, most 20th c. composers have given up on individual arias, choruses or set pieces, but instead build one overarching musical edifice; a sort of declamation takes the place of belcanto singing, making those operas a more realistic form of theater.

Here is the first of my favorite 20th century operas:

[Mary Garden, the first Mélisande]

Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
Let's first set one thing straight: Debussy has often been called an "Impressionist" - but Impressionism, which was a trend in painting, had long been surpassed by other fashions when Debussy wrote his music. As also his preference for poets as Verlaine and Maeterlinck demonstrates, Debussy was first and for all a Symbolist - the major trend in literature, painting and music around the turn of the century. As Constant Lambert says in Music Ho!, "By suspending a chord in space, as it were, Debussy recalls the methods of the literary Symbolists."

So not surprisingly, Debussy's only completed opera is based on a Symbolist, allegorical play by Nobel-Prize winning Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck (whose plays were very popular around that time). The radical novelty Debussy brought to opera - and why Pelléas et Mélisande became the first truly modern opera - is that he used the play as it was (only making some judicious cuts), having the original prose text declaimed over an ever-moving orchestration, staying close to the rhythms of natural speech in French (this was something radically new - so far, professional librettists had always been employed to fashion prose texts into metrical verse - for how do you fit melodies to unmetred prose?). There are no arias, choruses or set pieces. This enables Debussy to capture the subtleties of human behavior, with the orchestra's delicate texture playing a bigger expressive part than the singers. Instead of using leitmotifs in the unsubtle "visiting card technique" of Wagner, Debussy employs them as a way to draw musical shapes that represent his characters' psychological states. This resulted in the single most innovative opera from the fin-de-siècle. Not all contemporaries were enthusiastic, though - the opera was also seen as "full of the germs of decadence and death."

[The opera Pelléas et Mélisande painted by 
Edmund Blair Leighton]

The music itself is indeed often ambiguous and undecided, as if symbolical of Maeterlinck's pessimistic denial of free will. The emphasis is on quietness and subtlety, allowing the words of the libretto to be heard and understood; there are only a few fortissimos in the entire score. But the lack of operatic refulgence does not mean the music is monotonous: the love scenes between Pelléas and Mélisande are filled with passion, and the grim fourth act, when Golaud takes his revenge, is violent but also filled with ecstasy as the lovers, knowing they are doomed, embrace each other for the last time. Debussy's example influenced many later composers who edited their own libretti from existing prose plays, such as Richard Strauss in Salome, Alban Berg in Wozzeck and Lulu and Bernd Alois Zimmermann in Die Soldaten.

What had changed by 1900 is that the dominance of the "opera specialists" was over - Puccini was the last traditional opera composer. Debussy, Strauss, and others were instrumental composers who came from a different sonic world than traditional opera and who dared make radical changes - Pelléas et Mélisande has little to say to people who like narrative thrust and self-contained arias. But after some years of divided reception, by 1910 it was recognized as the masterpiece it is.

[Claude Debussy, by Donald Sheridan]

The story of the frail Mélisande and her adulterous love for her brother-in-law is a sensuously sinister exploration of sexuality. In the mystical land of Allemonde, Golaud is out hunting when he finds a mysterious young woman by a pond, who is defined be her beautiful, but abnormally long hair, longer than her whole figure (and fetishized in both play and opera): Mélisande. She has lost her crown in the water but does not wish to retrieve it. She keeps her identity and origins hidden, and yet Golaud falls instantly in love with her. He marries her and takes her to his family castle, where she wins the favor of Arkel, Golaud's aged father and king of Allemonde, who is ill. However, she soon falls in love with the young Pelléas, Golaud's stepbrother and Pelléas also becomes enchanted by his sister-in-law's beauty. They meet by a fountain, where Mélisande rather symbolically loses her wedding ring in the deep water.

Later, the two gradually grow closer to each other, especially when Mélisande from a window in the castle tower lets her extraordinary long hair be caressed by Pelléas standing on the ground below - he even binds her tresses to a tree. They are caught by Golaud, but he is not suspicious (yet) and as the older man thinks this is just a children's game. But as Mélisande is pregnant, he warns Pelléas not to make her tired. Golaud however feels his brother is hiding something from him and interrogates his young son, Yniold, about how the couple behaves when alone together. Afterwards, he has the boy stand on his shoulders and spy on the couple through Mélisande's window. Through the boy's innocent answers he now is awakened to the reality of the situation.

[Mary Garden, the first Mélisande]

Next, as the old king has recovered from his illness, Pelléas is requested to go on a trip. He asks Mélisande to come to the well in the garden at night to say goodbye to her. In the meantime, Golaud quarrels with Mélisande in front of Arkel, dragging her around the room by her long hair, and she tells her father-in-law that her husband doesn't love her anymore. At night, Pelléas and Mélisande meet at the well and confess their love for each other. When they kiss, Golaud appears from the shadows and kills his brother, severely wounding Mélisande.

In the last act, Mélisande has given birth to a baby girl. She lies on the bed under a white sheet with her gorgeous hair flowing down to the ground. Golaud presses her to tell the truth about her relation with Pelléas. After maintaining her innocence, Mélisande dies, leaving Arkel to comfort the sobbing Golaud.

The Maeterlinck play, by the way, inspired several other contemporary composers: Gabriel Fauré and Jean Sibelius both wrote incidental music for it, and Arnold Schoenberg based a lush, late-Romantic symphonic poem on the tragic story. But Debussy's conception is the greatest of them all.

Recording watched and listened to: Pierre Boulez (conductor) and Peter Stein (production) with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Welsh National Opera, with Alison Hagley (Mélisande), Neil Archer (Pélleas), Donald Maxwell (Golaud) and Kenneth Cox (Arkel) on Deutsche Grammophon (DVD 1992). Peter Stein's production is uncluttered and vaguely suggestive rather than becoming too literal. The scenery and dresses are often dark, but also lustrous, like black lacquer. Alison Hagley plays Mélisande as a woman-child with a mysterious smile. She also sings gorgeously. Neill Archer is an appealingly young Pelléas.