DEBUSSY: PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE
|Tuesday, September 8, 2015 - 8:00 PM||Done|
|Wednesday, September 9, 2015 - 8:00 PM||Done|
Presentation of the concert
Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (approx. 170 min.)
Born in St. Germain-en-Laye, August 22, 1862 – Died in Paris, March 25, 1918
PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE
LYRIC DRAMA IN FIVE ACTS BY CLAUDE DEBUSSY
Taken from the play Pelléas et Mélisande by Maurice Maeterlinck (1892)
“I do not claim to have discovered everything in Pelléas. But I have tried to denote a path that others might follow and develop in their own ways so as, perhaps, to free dramatic music from the heavy constraints under which it has been held for so long.”
– Claude Debussy, “Why I Wrote Pelléas,” 1902
Pelléas et Mélisande holds a very special place in the repertory of late 19th and early 20th-century French opera. In an age conspicuous for the overbearing influence of Wagner, Debussy’s only completed opera represents the result of his attempt to create a new kind of theatrical drama, something “après Wagner et non pas d’après Wagner” (post Wagner but not derivative of Wagner), as Debussy himself put it following the premiere in Paris in April 1902. The score of Pelléas et Mélisande is unquestionably the product of the staunchly Wagnerian era in which it was created. Among other things, Debussy employed a system of musical motifs in a manner quite close to the Wagnerian Leitmotiv. The opera’s musical language, as well as Debussy’s choice of libretto, indicate, however, a search for new paths in opera that would have a profound impact on the further development of the genre.
Debussy’s literary source was the eponymous play by the Belgian Symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), whose plays had been making the rounds of Parisian theaters since the early 1890s. Fascinated by what he called the “dream atmosphere” of Pelléas, Debussy set nearly the entire text to music, adopting the prosody as it existed in all of Maeterlinck’s half-tints and making only a few cuts. Pelléas is thus one of the first French operas to have as its “libretto” a theatrical play written in prose – and not just any play: Maeterlinck’s work was the source of inspiration for other composers as well, including Arnold Schoenberg, whose symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande, premiered in 1905, was written within a few months following the first performance of Debussy’s opera.
To set Maeterlinck’s highly evocative text to music, one in which the simplest words are often those most heavily laden with symbolic meaning, Debussy used a very free declamation close to the spoken word, orchestra “speaks” very much in the manner of the voices, adding to the mystery of characters for whom silences are at times more revelatory than words.
Scene 1: A forest.While out hunting, Prince Golaud becomes lost in the forest. He spies a young woman crying beside a fountain, asks her many questions, but succeeds in learning nothing more than her name, Mélisande. He nevertheless manages to convince her to follow him out of the forest.
Scene 2: A room in the castle. Golaud’s mother Geneviève is reading to old King Arkel a letter Golaud has sent to his half-brother Pelléas. Golaud tells of his recent marriage to Mélisande and of his apprehension over how Arkel will regard Mélisande when they return to the castle. Arkel announces that he will accept Mélisande as his own daughter.
Scene 3: In front of the castle. Geneviève and Mélisande, out for a bit of sun, are walking in the castle garden. They meet Pelléas, who tells Mélisande that he will soon depart the castle.
Scene 1: A well in the park. Pelléas leads Mélisande to a well that long ago had the property of making the blind see. While playfully leaning over the water, Mélisande drops the wedding band Golaud had given her.
Scene 2: A room in the castle. Mélisande is at Golaud’s bedside. He was injured when thrown from his horse, at the very moment when Mélisande lost the wedding band. She does not dare tell him what really happened; she claims it slipped off in a cave near the sea. Golaud furiously orders her to return there immediately and search for it.
Scene 3: Outside a cave. Pelléas and Mélisande start to enter a cave by the light of the moon, but upon seeing three derelicts sleeping within, they become distraught and flee.
Scene 1: A castle tower. Mélisande is singing while combing her long hair by the window of her room. Beneath her, at the foot of the tower, Pelléas again announces his intent to leave on the morrow. He attempts to draw close in order to kiss her hand, and finds himself engulfed in Mélisande’s hair, which has fallen all about him from the castle window. Golaud unexpectedly arrives and puts an end to their little rendezvous.
Scene 2: The dungeons below the castle. Together Pelléas and Golaud explore the dark, forbidding underground regions of the castle.
Scene 3: A terrace at the entrance to the dungeons. Upon returning to the fresh air, Golaud warns Pelléas that he saw what was going on at the tower window, and that he wants no more of this behavior, especially as Mélisande is soon to become a mother and it is his responsibility to ensure all goes well.
Scene 4: In front of the castle. Golaud uses Yniold, his son from a previous marriage, to spy on Mélisande. From him, Golaud learns that Pelléas is with her in her room.
Scene 1: A room in the castle. Pelléas arranges to meet Mélisande by the Blind Men’s Well.
Scene 2: A room in the castle. Golaud behaves contemptuously and violently toward Mélisande. Arkel asks her what is the meaning of all this. She replies that Golaud no longer loves her.
Scene 3: A well in the park. Little Yniold is trying in vain to retrieve his golden ball that has become lodged behind a large stone. A flock of sheep comes into view. They are not heading for the fold, and Yniold worriedly asks the shepherd where they will spend the night.
Scene 4: A well in the park. Pelléas assures Mélisande that the reason he must leave the castle is that he is in love with her. Mélisande’s response to Pelléas, trembling with anticipation, is accompanied by total silence from the orchestra: “I love you too.” They both suddenly realize that Golaud is watching them. They embrace passionately, heedless of the lurking danger. Golaud mortally wounds Pelléas with his sword, and Mélisande flees, with Golaud in pursuit.
A room in the castle. Golaud implores Mélisande, on her deathbed, for forgiveness after the shameful way he has treated her. In hope of learning the truth, he presses her with questions about her true relationship with Pelléas. Exactly how did they love, he wants to know. Her responses are couched in oracular ambiguity. Arkel hands Mélisande the child she has brought into the world, a little girl. The household servants all enter the room just as Mélisande dies. Golaud collapses, sobbing. The last words go to Arkel, who affirms that now it is the turn of Mélisande’s poor little child to live on in her place.
© Marie-Hélène Benoit-Otis
English translation by Robert Markow
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