Sunday, February 17, 2002

[2/17/2012] Preview: More Debussy -- a quick entrée into one of the truly unique pieces in the musical literature (continued)


DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande: Act I, Scene 1
A forest. As the curtain rises, MÉLISANDE is discovered at the edge of a spring. GOLAUD enters.

GOLAUD: I will no longer be able to get out of this forest!
God knows where that beast has led me.
I thought, however, I had wounded it mortally,
and here are traces of blood, but now I've lost sight of it.
I think I'm also lost myself, and my dogs aren't finding their way back to me.
I'm going to retrace my steps.
I hear crying. . . .
Oh! oh! What's that there at the edge of the water?
A little girl who's crying at the edge of the water?
[He coughs.]
She doesn't hear me.
I can't see her face.
[He approaches and touches MÉLISANDE on the shoulder.]
Why are you crying?
[MÉLISANDE starts, straightens up, and wants to flee.]
Don't be afraid. You have nothing to fear.
Why are you crying, here, all alone?
MÉLISANDE [almost without voice]: Don't touch me! Don't touch me!
GOLAUD: Don't be afraid . . .
I won't hurt you . . .
Oh! you're beautiful!
MÉLISANDE: Don't touch me, don't touch me, or I'll throw myself in the water!
GOLAUD: I'm not touching you.
[gentle and calm] See, I'll stay here, under the tree.
Don't be afraid.
Has someone done you harm?
MÉLISANDE: Everyone! Everyone!
GOLAUD: What harm have they done you?
MÉLISANDE: I don't want to say it ! I don't want to say it!
GOLAUD: Let's see, don't cry like that.
Where do you come from?
MÉLISANDE: I've fled . . . fled . . . fled . . .
GOLAUD: Yes, but where did you flee from?
MÉLISANDE: I'm lost! lost!
Oh! oh! lost here . . .
I'm not from here . . .
I wasn't born there . . .
GOLAUD: Where are you from?
Where were you born?
MÉLISANDE: Oh! oh! far from here . . . far . . . far . . .
GOLAUD: What's shining like that at the bottom of the water?
MÉLISANDE: Where then? Ah!
It's the crown that he gave me.
It fell while crying.
GOLAUD: A crown?
Who is it who gave you a crown?
I'm going to try to grab it . . .
MÉLISANDE: No, no, I don't want it anymore! I don't want it anymore!
I prefer to die . . . to die right away!
GOLAUD: I could retrieve it easily;
the water isn't very deep.
MÉLISANDE: I don't want it anymore!
If you retrieve it, I'll throw myself in its place!
GOLAUD: No, no, I'll leave it there.
One could get hold of it without difficulty, however.
It seems very beautiful.
Has it been a long time since you fled?
MÉLISANDE: Yes, yes.
Who are you?
GOLAUD: I am the prince Golaud,
the grandson of Arkel, the old king of Allemonde.
MÉLISANDE: Oh! you already have gray hair!
GOLAUD: Yes, some, here, near the temples.
MÉLISANDE: And the beard too.
Why are you looking at me like that?
GOLAUD: I'm looking at your eyes.
You never close your eyes?
MÉLISANDE: You are a giant!
GOLAUD: I'm a man like the others . . .
MÉLISANDE: Why did you come here?
GOLAUD: I don't know anything about it myself.
I was hunting in the forest.
I was pursuing a wild boar,
I lost my way.
You seem very young.
How old are you?
MÉLISANDE: I'm starting to feel cold . . .
GOLAUD: Do you want to come with me?
MÉLISANDE: No, no, I'll stay here.
GOLAUD: You can't stay here all alone.
You can't stay here all night.
What's your name?
MÉLISANDE: Mélisande.
GOLAUD: You can't stay here, Mélisande.
Come with me . . .
MÉLISANDE: I'll stay here.
GOLAUD: You'll be afraid, all alone.
One doesn't know what will happen here . . . all alone . . . it's not possible.
[with a great gentleness] Mélisande, come, give your hand . . .
MÉLISANDE: Oh! don't touch me!
GOLAUD: Don't cry.
I won't touch you anymore.
But come with me.
Night will be very black and very cold.
Come with me . . .
MÉLISANDE: Where are you going?
GOLAUD: I don't know. I'm lost too.
[They exit.]

[A] Heinz Rehfuss (bs-b), Golaud; Suzanne Danco (s), Mélisande; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet, cond. Decca, recorded 1952

[B] George London (bs-b), Golaud; Erna Spoorenberg (s), Mélisande; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet, cond. Decca, recorded August 1964

[C] Donald McIntyre (bs-b), Golaud; Elisabeth Söderström (s), Mélisande; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Pierre Boulez, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded Dec. 1969-Jan. 1970

[D] José van Dam (bs-b), Golaud; Maria Ewing (ms), Mélisande; Vienna Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado, cond. DG, recorded January 1991


This scene is so full of astounding things -- really, it's nothing but an unbroken sequence of astounding things -- that I wouldn't know where to stop if I began to catalogue them. Consider, though, that for a text invariably branded with the label "symbolist" (since the author of the play that provides the libretto, Maurice Maeterlinck, is invariably identified as a leading practitioner, as poet and playwright, of the French Symbolist school), the actual dialogue is extraordinarily true-to-life and precise. Even when the characters veer into the realm of the poetic, it's in amazingly real ways.

In this context, it's fascinating to note how Mélisande, deliberately or otherwise, evades most of Golaud's fairly obvious questions, but does choose to answer some, and note how Debussy has musicalized her responses, both the responsive and the seemingly nonresponsive ones. The musical characterization of Golaud is every bit as fascinating; I would just note the sense of him we get when he identifies himself ("Je suis le prince Golaud . . .") in response to Mélisande's question -- when she finally asks one!

Now, as to the above-promised notes:

(1) What we've heard is the orchestral introduction and Scene 1 of Act I plus the interlude that joins it to Scene 2

(If we let the music run any farther, we would be hearing Geneviève, the mother of Golaud and Pelléas, preparing to read to her father-in-law, King Arkel, a letter written to Pelléas by his brother sometime after the events of Scene 1.)

For this decidedly untraditional opera, Debussy resorted to the traditional five-act French grand-opera format. All five acts are relatively brief (say, in the half-hour range), and except for the last one, which contains one more extended scene, are made of quite compact brief scenes bridged by extraordinary musical interludes that bear an uncanny resemblance to those that accomplish scene changes in Wagner operas. (Acts I and II each have three scenes.)

(2) We've heard our performance of the full scene in the same order as the tinier excerpts we heard before

And that order, you'll note, is chronological order, starting with the two Ansermet recordings. In both performance and recording, the not-widely-heralded stereo one seems to me upliftingly bold and vividly colored. (I expressed a strong preference for the stereo version in the Pelléas chapter of the Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera.) I love the 1964 Ansermet recording, and have never much warmed to the generally much-more-admired 1952 one, in which even singers as generally admirable as Suzanne Danco and Heinz Rehfuss (we've heard Rehfuss sing some gorgeous Mahler) sound strangely prettified and disengaged, to a degree that for me exceeds the bounds of what might be called an "interpretation."

I also like the Boulez-CBS Pelléas, and hope the more recent CD edition does it better justice than this original one. The Abbado-DG is certainly nicely recorded, and certainly OK, or OK-ish, but really not in the same class, though I do enjoy José van Dam's Golaud (at least in this early scene, before things get ugly).


Sure, we could have Karajan too, and this time let's let the music run just a tad longer, to hear the completed transition from our forest scene to the room in Arkel's castle where Geneviève is in conversation with her father-in-law, the king, saying: "Here's what he wrote to his brother Pelléas." It's certainly a very lovely performance -- pretty playing, pretty singing. And you can hear that Frederica von Stade is trying to assemble some sort of character life for Mélisande. But mostly what I hear is qualities rather than people and urgencies. And note that the mystery is pretty well gone.

José van Dam (bs-b), Golaud; Frederica von Stade (ms), Mélisande; Nadine Denize (ms), Geneviève; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. EMI, recorded December 1978

[Again, apologies for the LP surface noise. I've never been interested enough in the performance to think of investing in CDs. And this Angel LP has an amazing amount of itty-bitty grit (or something).]


As noted, we continue last week's series of "Impressions of Debussy," with four more works culled from the 150th-birthday coverage in the February 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine. On the menu this week, in addition to Pelléas et Mélisande (we'll be hearing the start of the scene between Mélisande and Pelléas which opens Act III): the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp and the orchestral "danced poem" Jeux. (Some consideration is currently being given to a possible "bonus" work.)

AND NOT TO WORRY, MUSICAL-STORM LOVERS: The final installment in that series, spotlighting the great storms of Verdi's Rigoletto and Janáček's Kátya Kabanová, is still in the works, at the moment penciled in for next week.


Roaming the landscape (and seascape!) of the imagination -- the full orchestral splendor of Debussy (4/18/2012)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Saxophone Rhapsody (cond. Martinon, Masur), La Mer (cond. Boulez, Rosenthal, Martinon, Masur), Three Nocturnes (cond. Plasson)
Preview 1: Debussy -- the man who heard the music in moonlight (4/16/2010)
In various arrangements as well as the piano originals: "Clair de lune," "La Fille aux cheveux de lin" ("The Girl with the Flaxen Hair"), and "Golligwogg's Cake-walk"
Preview 2: Debussy from "Syrinx" to Afternoon of a Faun -- or is it vice versa? (4/17/2010)
Syrinx played by Paula Robison and Jean-Pierre Rampal (videos) and Julius Baker. Afternoon of a Faun conductred by Manuel Rosenthal
Preview: Mezzo Susan Graham shares her favorite Debussy: "Clair de lune"! (2/10/2012)
Played by Aldo Ciccolini, Peter Frankl, and Walter Gieseking, plus Virgil Fox (organ), Angel Romero (guitar), and Jascha Heifetz (violin)
More "impressions of Debussy" (2/12/2012)
A bevy of pianists play the first of the Two Arabesques, "Reflets dans l'eau" from Series 1 of the Images for Piano, and the prélude "La Cathédrale engloutie"; plus the last of the three Images for Orchestra, Rondes de printemps, is conducted by Manuel Rosenthal, Jean Martinon, and Charles Munch
Preview: More Debussy -- a quick entrée into one of the truly unique pieces in the musical literature (2/17/2012)
Act I, Scene 1 of Pelléas et Mélisande conducted by Ernest Ansermet (twice), Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado, and Herbert von Karajan
Still more "Impressions of Debussy" (2/19/2012)
Three performances of the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp; Jeux conducted by Pierre Boulez, Manuel Rosenthal, and Jean Martinon; and an assortment of performances of the opening of the Tower Scene of Act III of Pelléas et Mélisande


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