The story goes that after Camille Saint-Saëns viewed
Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande he delayed his holiday so he
could speak ‘ill of Pelléas’. Others were not as diplomatic!
Some thought it unnatural, inferring it had homosexual overtones and
that Debussy’s followers were ‘Pelléastres’ or highly effeminate. Heaven
knows what they thought of Debussy’s female disciples! I only mention
these facts because I listened to the opera for the first time over
Christmas. Which makes me as naïve of the work as when Parisians first
viewed it on 30 April 1902.
My first impressions were one of interest and enlightenment. Enough to say I
will not be listening to the opera again for some time. Like all things meaningful
and novel, time to digest and evaluate the experience is just as important as
the experience itself.
As an opera-lover reared on the likes of Verdi and Puccini, the first thing that
struck me was the absence of arias. In fact, my interest was piqued when I realised
that each of the parts can be sung by a multiplicity of voice-types. For example,
Pelléas can be sung by either a baritone or tenor, Mélisande and Geneviève can
be sung by virtually any female voice type, Golaud and Arkel by a baritone or
bass and Yniold by a male treble or female voice. Which brings us back to the
absence of arias. Arias, as we all know, are virtuoso pieces in which extreme
highs and lows in pitch are inserted to display or show-off the singer’s wares.
Take that away and the music becomes ‘plain-chant’ or ‘recitative’. The sung
text has no beginning, no middle and no end. Anybody with sufficient vocal training
can sing that. Thus the reason for the blurring of voice types. Add to that
a lack of recognisable tunes or airs and we have the reason for Debussy saying: ‘First
of all, ladies and gentlemen, you must forget that you are singers.’ The mood
or atmosphere is set by the addition of musical interludes.
The idea, of course is not novel. Richard Wagner had already used it in his operas.
Debussy was familiar with them – he had attended a performance of Tristan
und Isolde conducted by Hans Richter in Vienna and later, in 1888/89 had
travelled to the Bayreuth Festpielhaus to attend more operas, including Parsifal.
Wagner made a deep impression on Debussy although Wagner’s romanticism was later
denounced as being a ‘beautiful sunset mistaken for a dawn.’
Mélisande’s part in the opera is unusual. In this drama of a love shared by siblings
and jealousy leading to murder in which Mélisande is a vital ingredient the lack
of dialogue apportioned to her is interesting. Compared with the other characters,
Mélisande’s contribution is almost monosyllabic and except for one lament at
the start of Act 3 (CD 3 track 1), she sings in a series of ‘one-liners’. One
presumes this is deliberate, created to give the impression that Mélisande is
introverted, is trying to find her true spirit and going through life lost in
the confusion of her own thoughts. Debussy once said ‘music is the silence between
the notes.’ One wonders whether he had Mélisande in mind when he said that. Incidentally,
Irene Joachim (grand-daughter to the celebrated violinist) who sings the role
in this compilation saw Mélisande’s attraction to Pelléas differently to that
of the originator of the role - Mary Garden – whose characterisation was feasibly
moulded by Debussy himself. ‘For her, with Pelléas, it was love at first sight,’ she
said. ‘To me he was Death – mine and his own. Our eyes never met.’
So what about this CD? First of all let me mention the bonus tracks by Maggie
Teyte and Mary Garden which conclude CD3. The former was recorded in 1936, more
than thirty years after Garden’s contribution. The only thing of interest about
the latter is that the accompanist is Debussy himself. Other than the tracks
satisfying some form of musical curiosity the least said about them the better.
Garden is made to sound like some second-rate soprano with a lack of vocal support
and a stridency reminiscent of a baby’s first notes. Inasmuch as it was recorded
two years after Garden made her debut as Mélisande I can only ascribe the abnormalities
in her voice to the lack of recording sophistication of the period. Maggie Teyte,
who took over Garden’s mantle as the compleat interpreter of Mélisande is much
more sound in voice and intonation. Her songs are excellent examples of Debussy’s
lack of musical form.
As for the principals in Pelléas et Mélisande enough to say that they
are all superb although it is hard to ascertain - for reasons mentioned above
- the extent of Irene Joachim’s vocal abilities. What she is allowed to contribute
is good in the high vibrato style that was popular at the time. The deep, round
sounds of Paul Cabanel as Arkel are dominant and commanding and both Jacques
Jansen as Pelléas - a tenor was chosen this time which was good because it contrasted
nicely with the deeper sounds of the other men - and Henri-Bertrand Echeverry
as Golaud are equally as impressive.
There have been suggestions that Roger Désormière adapted the tempi to fit the
length of the 78rpm sides but as I am no authority on the opera I can hardly
comment. The orchestra is suitably unobtrusive during the singing and obviously
dominant during the orchestral interludes.
The opera was recorded over a period of twenty days in April, May, July, October
and November of 1941. It must have been very taxing and difficult for the participants
as the sessions took place during the early days of Nazi occupation and the wax
for the recordings was scarce. Still they made a good job of it and the mono
digital remastering is just as impressive.
Altogether a superb rendition of the opera and one rightly allocated by EMI as
a Great Recording of the Century.