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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
An Introduction to… Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

Written by Thomson Smillie
David Timson, narrator
Musical examples taken from recording made by Choeur Régional Nord/Pas-de-Calais directed by Eric Deltour and Orchestre National de Lille-Région Nord/Pas-de-Calais directed by Jean-Claude Casadesus DDD
NAXOS 8.558172 [78:53]

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It is certain that without a fan base, any art form is fast on its way to extinction. That is largely why Thomson Smillie’s work is so important. It is a lens through which the most important works in opera become clear to those who otherwise have no point of reference. With this knowledge comes appreciation, and from there the art gains fans. In this installment of his "An Introduction to…" series, the subject for examination is Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Here the story is told in narrative form and elucidated through an explanation by comparison to Hamlet. The music is set in context of its time through examples from the works of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and Debussy’s earlier works La Mer and Prélude a l’après midi d’un faune. Its significance and influence for later composers is displayed largely through Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. The narrative does a good job of explaining the reasons why the work was so distinctive in its day, what the impetus was behind the composition, and how the piece became so influential. As this is among the more impressionistic and difficult to follow works in opera, these illustrations are both interesting and valuable, even to the knowledgeable fan. In this respect, this is amongst the more successful of the series. After all, since Debussy wanted his music to illustrate the inexpressible, it is easy to become lost in the beautiful but opaque musical imagery.

The great concern would then be the quality of the musical examples. Many times in this series the recordings that are used for illustration have sounded dated; this is not the case here. The selections are from another Naxos recording, Pelléas et Mélisande (Naxos 8.660047-49 [not reviewed]), which is a very strong version. The performers are well suited to the original intent of the composer, and in Pelléas et Mélisande that is often not the case. The lead role of Pelléas is normally performed by a tenor even though the original part was written for a high baritone. Since it is difficult to find a performer that has both the range required and the weight of timbre preferred, the next-best selection is often made. Here the correct singer is found. Additionally the selection for the part of Yniold, either a boy soprano on stage or a trained woman on most recordings, is here very well cast. It is sung by Françoise Golfier, a trained soprano able to retain the straight tone and light timbre of a boy soprano.

Additionally, other installments of the series have often been plagued by dated recordings with poor fidelity. Here the recording fidelity matches that of the voice-over. It is crisp, clean, well recorded, and well performed. When the vintage recordings from the 1940s-1960s are used the difference is distracting. In this case the music recording is good enough to focus attention on the performance and gain further understanding from Smillie’s words.

For Pelléas et Mélisande in particular this is important, for much understanding is needed to grasp the enigmatic symbolism and musical vagaries that are used by Debussy as constructive techniques. The background story of the characters is intentionally left unexplained. Some of the leitmotifs used feel like they are supposed to be constructive, as Wagner used them, but aren’t directly related to characters or clearly defined ideas. In short, this is not an easy to understand opera. It is intended to be difficult and to challenge the audience.

For instance, we are told that the King is blind, Mélisande never closes her eyes. The audience is left to determine if there’s any interconnection or cross-symbolism. It is never truly explained. Also there is the case in the opening scene where there is a crown that Mélisande does not want retrieved. Later she loses her wedding ring in a fountain when the undertones of an adulterous affair between her and Pelléas become more obvious. That seems to echo the crown incident. However the crown is never explained. There are several cases in the opening scene where statements are made that seem confusing, and these are recognized. They aren’t really explained, but Smillie does at least enlighten the listener that Debussy did not intend them to be explainable.

Furthermore, as the play develops there is much erotic symbolism that could be lost on a modern audience. We generally lack the knowledge of French Victorian symbolism. There are points where there is much intended by seemingly innocent and understated events. Things such as Pelléas playing with Mélisande’s hair, described in the play as "child’s play", but which should be understood as an allusion to a physical, perhaps sexual, relationship. Moreover, the pure musical passages are intended to explain the deleted action. They depict the wooing of Mélisande by Golaud or travel through the countryside, for instance. However, without knowledge of the convention, a listener would hear only pure music, then be disoriented as the next scene begins. After gaining that understanding, the opera is far less random, even if it is still difficult to understand.

In general, Pelléas et Mélisande is rightly recognized as a masterpiece. There are some who go so far as to claim that it is the greatest opera ever composed. It certainly is among the most influential. However it is also one of the more difficult to understand even by an uneducated audience. Even an audience familiar with opera in general may find it opaque, just as the composer intended. It is by design vague and impressionistic, with only the music providing some elucidation of the text.

Thomson Smillie offers the key to understanding this difficult story. For anyone that has any interest in this opera, this is a valuable disc.

Patrick Gary

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