Pelléas et Mélisande Opera in 5 Acts and 12 Scenes. Libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck
A Work Worth Fighting For: Pélleas et Mélisande on Naxos/Casadesus and EMI/Karajan
by Anthony Guneratne
It was not for lack of trying that Beethoven and Debussy each completed only one work for the operatic stage. Beethoven revised his Fidelio endlessly for over a decade, and for years after the success of Pélleas et Mélisande Debussy (right) toyed unsuccessfully with setting Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the legends of Tristan and Orpheus, and even two of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. However, despite their isolation both within their composers’ oeuvres and the hitherto accepted musical traditions of German and French opera, neither work has ever shown the slightest hint of fading from the repertoire, unlike those of the prolific but only recently “rediscovered” opera composers Vivaldi, Haydn and Schubert.
Never great crowd-pleasers, their undiminished popularity among musicians may derive from their being conductors’ operas (ones in which the singers’ stardom is usurped by the orchestra) and, as is especially true of Pélleas, finding devoted adherents among eminent maestros. Indeed, Pélleas enjoys the rare distinction of attracting champions as different in musical temperament as Ernest Ansermet, Pierre Boulez and Herbert von Karajan.
In the 1960s, the great era of the conductor rivalries, no orchestral concert seemed complete without Debussy’s symphonic suite La Mer, and in 1961 practically every major opera house in Europe attempted to stage rival versions of Pélleas. Perhaps the most notable were in Hamburg (Ansermet) and Vienna (Karajan), and while only written descriptions of the performances have been preserved, Ansermet subsequently made two fine recordings (albeit with different singers).
For his part Karajan gave EMI the most luminous version of all in 1979 (reissued in 1993 and available on CDS 7 49350-2). The other recording prior to the present one that requires mention is that of Boulez (Sony Classical SM3K 47265), who even if he did not possess a cast of singers as exceptional as Karajan’s, had one of the most musical of all recorded Mélisandes in Elizabeth Söderström.
Boulez was one of Jean-Claude Casadesus’s teachers, and his influence on the latter (particularly in terms of emphasis on the dramatic content of the score and the use of unexpected pauses and orchestral tutti to underline the action) is readily apparent. Yet it is Karajan’s recording which, being almost antithetical, provides the most instructive contrasts to Casadesus’s.
Almost as if to underline the Symbolist mysticism of Pélleas, Karajan consistently (and uncharacteristically) chooses the most relaxed of tempi, encouraging the players of the Berlin Philharmonic to luxuriate in the delicate mixture of timbres and the shimmering colors of Debussy’s score. Casadesus, like Boulez, is more forthright: his tempi are more varied even if the dynamic range is a little narrower; his singers are placed further forward with respect to the orchestra; and the style of singing is more urgent and more declamatory as befits a recording made from “live” performances.
This approach certainly has its merits. There are numerous instances when it seems that Karajan, ever the great Wagnerian, has decided that the opera eschews dramatic content altogether since Pélleas was Debussy’s answer to Wagner (although at first deeply influenced by Wagner’s rejection of the old Italian formula of recitativo and aria with a few ensembles thrown in for good measure, Debussy fell under Erik Satie’s spell and decided that he was a musicien français, the first and most significant result being that Pélleas is the only opera that sounds as if it consists entirely of extended recitatives punctuated by vivid orchestral interludes).
Casadesus’s brisk opening is filled with a genuine sense of foreboding (a black fog to Karajan’s mist), and Arapian’s harsh tones give Golaud the kind of menace that justifies Mélisande’s almost instantaneous fear of him. Later, too, when Golaud falls from his horse, Karajan’s Mélisande, Frederica von Stade, sings with incomparably limpid tones and a command of shading that conveys the tenderness of a sensitive young girl, but it is Mireille Delunsch (for the Naxos recording) who truly captures the sudden change to desperation when immediately thereafter Mélisande pleads that she be taken away from Arkel’s gloomy castle.
It is Casadesus, too, who when Golaud realizes that Mélisande no longer wears his ring and demands that she retrieve it, asks his orchestra to pause at the moment Golaud notices her tears. The silence lasts only an instant, but again reinforces the sense that we are hearing a staged performance rather than Karajan’s exquisitely-nuanced oratorio.
Even so, it is the latter who appears to have fully appreciated the subtler demands of vocal recordings, for he has chosen singers with distinctive timbres, a consideration particularly important for Pélleas in which the two principal male roles are given to baritones. Théruel and Arapian are both dark-voiced and stentorian, and their exchanges monochromatic. Richard Stilwell, Karajan’s Pélleas, was then a genuine lyric baritone, and he provides a striking contrast to José van Dam’s bass-like Golaud. Indeed, in the famous scene in the second act in which Mélisande suggests a convenient lie to explain the loss of her ring to Golaud and Pélleas exhorts her to tell the truth, his final “la vérité” (with its secret connotation of an admission of her love for him), could be mistaken for the honeyed ardor of a tenor.
At times one also misses the sheer vocal resources of Karajan’s singers: von Stade’s perfect breath control and exquisite shading in the all-but-unaccompanied melody at the start of Act 3, or Ruggero Raimondi’s resonant memory of youth when Arkel, in the second scene of Act 4, claims that old men are rejuvenated by the kisses of young women (Bacquier, the best-known of Casadesus’s singers, manages a vibrato so broad and venerable that one is left wondering how many kisses it would take).
But such objections are more than counterbalanced by Casadesus’s intuitive feeling for the psychological depth of Debussy’s score. Never more so than when Pélleas finally declares his love for Mélisande. Here the tempo broadens, as if to hold on to their one moment of true happiness when she whispers that she has always loved him, only to give way to a long, despairing accelerando as they imagine Golaud’s approach.
Surely, then, there should be space on one’s shelf for more than one recording of Pélleas et Mélisande. It is a work worth fighting for, as was amply demonstrated by the composer himself. Contrary to the wishes of the great Symbolist writer, Maurice Maeterlinck, who had granted his blessing for the adaptation of his theatrical work on the condition that his soprano mistress, Georgette Leblanc, would be the first Mélisande, Debussy insisted on casting the great singing actress Mary Garden (left, as Mélisande at the Opéra Comique, 1902). On hearing the news, Maeterlinck stormed through one of Debussy’s windows and threatened him with his walking stick. Debussy fainted and had to be revived by his wife with smelling salts.
Musicians who heard the work immediately knew that something very special had occurred: Ravel attended every performance and Satie abandoned his own ambitions to compose an opera, claiming that Debussy had said everything. André Messager, the first conductor of Pélleas et Mélisande, declared that when, in the final scene, the dying Mélisande asks that her window be opened, she admits not just the rays of the setting sun but all of modern music.
And although Maeterlinck swore never to see the opera and never spoke to Debussy again, he did hear Mary Garden perform the role two years after the composer died. “Yesterday I broke my vow,” he wrote to Garden, “and I am overjoyed. For the first time I have understood my play. And all because of you.”
Mélisande Frederica von Stade soprano Pelléas Richard Stilwell baritone Golaud José van Dam baritone Arkel Ruggero Raimondi bass Geneviève Nadine Denize mezzo-soprano
Choir of German Opera, Berlin · Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von KarajanEMI Classics Great Recordings of the Century CDM 5 67168-2 3 discs [60:34 + 34:25 + 67:09] mid-price
Libretto in French with translations.
MélisandeMireille Delunsch soprano Pelléas Gérard Théruel baritone Golaud Armand Arapian baritone ArkelGabriel Bacquier bass GenevièveHélène Jossoud mezzo-soprano YnioldFrançoise Golfier soprano Le médecin/Le bergerJean-Jacques Doumène bass
Choeur Régional Nord/Pas-de-Calais · Eric Deltour chorus master · Orchestre National de Lille-Région Nord/Pas-de-Calais conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus
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