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Claude Debussy: Pélleas et Mélisande
17 Mar 2010

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

Five years after the première of Pelléas et Mélisande, Wilhelm Worringer published the twentieth century’s first great treatise on abstraction in art:

Claude Debussy: Pélleas et Mélisande

Pelléas: Rodney Gilfry; Mélisande: Isabel Rey; Golaud: Michael Volle; Arkel: László Polgár; Geneviève: Cornelia Kallisch; Yniold: Eva Liebau; Le berger: Guido Götzen; Le médecin: Guido Götzen. Zurich Opera House Chorus and Orchestra. Franz Welser-Möst, conductor. Sven-Eric Bechtolf, stage director. Rolf Glittenberg, set design. Recorded live from the Zurich Opera House, 2004.


$35.99  Click to buy

Just as the desire for empathy as the basis for aesthetic experience finds satisfaction in organic beauty, so the desire for abstraction finds its beauty in the life-renouncing inorganic, in the crystalline, in a word, in all abstract regularity and necessity…

Thus all transcendental art sets out with the aim of de-organicizing the organic, i.e. of translating the mutable and conditional into values of unconditional necessity. But such a necessity man is able to feel only in the great world beyond the living, in the world of the inorganic. This led him to rigid lines, to inert crystalline form. He translated everything living into the language of these imperishable and unconditional values. For these abstract forms, liberated from all finiteness, are the only ones, and the highest, in which man can find rest from the confusion of the world picture. (Abstraktion und Einfühlung, 1907)

The present DVD is Worringer’s dream production of the Debussy opera: the stage set consists of slabs of stone, a slab of light atop a thick low turret, white outlines of boxes made of thin planks, and a curved background of whitish corrugated iron; the colors vary from gray to silver to celadon; a layer of snow covers the stage floor and snow occasionally falls from above. The ostumes of the male singers are decorated with scenes that seem to be abstractions of lunar craters and other extraterrestrialities. The director, Sven-Eric Bechtolf, listened carefully when Golaud said, “This castle is very cold and very dark.”

Maeterlinck was in some sense an abstractionist, interested in a kind of théâtre pur in which the fairy-tale, art-nouveau-Medieval staging stylized human life into something simple and intense and stark. But it’s far from clear that his abstractions are to be considered in any sense chill: his plays aren’t about ascending into the imperishable and unconditional, not about finding rest from the world’s confusion, but about tracing the paths of perishable and confused things in as lucid a manner as he could. Antarctica isn’t quite the right venue for the words or the music, although there is some sense in which the characters inhabit a Fortress of Solitude. Still, when Mélisande says that she can’t take Pelléas’s hand because her arms are full of flowers, and we see her holding a heap of snow, the stage picture touches on something true to the opera’s aesthetic, the way in which Maeterlinck’s seasons are all, in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, a zero summer.

This production shows its love for the abstraction not only through frigid geometries, but also through its predilection for dolls. Each character cohabits with a life-sized dummy, and in most scenes the singers sing not to one another but to the dummy of their interlocutor. When the singers actually turn toward their human counterparts, it creates a feeling of unusual intimacy: for example, when Golaud examines Mélisande’s hand, before discovering the absence of the wedding ring, he clasps both the dummy’s hand and the singer’s own—you can see how startled she is to feel a human touch. And when the singers turn away from their human counterparts to sing to the dummy, it creates a shiver of distance: most of the love duet (act 4, scene 4) has Pelléas and Mélisande singing human-to-human, but toward the end there is a section where she prefers the company of the dummy.

Here Mr. Bechtolf seems on firm ground with respect to Maeterlinck’s dramaturgy. Maeterlinck in many ways preferred puppets to human actors, and some of his finest plays were intended for marionettes. He had a dualistic imagination, and considered that the soul had little to do with the body and even the body’s passions:

What would happen, for example, if our soul suddenly became visible and she had to move forward into the midst of a gathering of her sisters, stripped of her veils, but laden with her most secret thoughts and dragging behind her the most mysterious acts of her life—acts that nothing could explain? What would make her blush? What would she want to hide? Would she start to throw, like a modest women, the long mantle of her hair over the numberless sins of the flesh? She did not know them, and these sins have never reached her. They were committed a thousand leagues from her throne; and even the Sodomite’s soul would pass in the midst of the throng without suspecting anything, and bearing in her eyes a child’s transparent smile. She hasn’t intervened, she spent her life close to the light, and this is the only life she will remember. (Le trésor des humbles)

In some sense Golaud has nothing to do with his jealousy, or Mélisande with her fragility: there is a part of each of us that is immune from the events of our lives, a part to which our very character traits are irrelevant. There is no reason why our soul—a perfectly uninflected thing—might not be properly represented by a doll.

But I’m not sure that the dolls in this production ever behave in a fashion congenial to Maeterlinck’s notion of the childlike pathos at the heart of the human subject. Sometimes they seem to represent social roles, the outer husks of personality that we display to our acquaintances and our lovers. Yeats thought that every love affair had four parties: him, her, his mask, her mask; and the Bechtolf production sometimes takes its cue from that logic. In the scene in which Mélisande carelessly tosses her ring above the Fountain of the Blind, Mr. Bechtolf provides us with four fountains: his, her, his dummies’, her dummies’; and Mélisande and her dummy each drop a ring into a fountain, Mélisande when she talks of letting her hair down into the water, the dummy when the ring is supposed to fall. At other moments, it seems as if the singer represents the character’s soul while the dummy represents the body: in act 5, the dummy lies in on the sick bed, while Mélisande wanders about the room, eventually finding Yniold’s big gold ball, and eventually leaves the stage, gaily tossing the ball, as the other characters weep over her dummy-corpse.

Mr. Bechtolf, I suspect, likes dummies mostly because you can inflict a lot of damage on them, and this is indeed the most violent production of the opera I’ve ever seen or heard of. Golaud tears off the arm of the dummy-Yniold in the course of persuading the boy to spy on Pelléas and Mélisande; and soon Golaud holds up the dummy’s severed head, the eyes glowing from within by electric light, in order to see what is above his range of vision. When Golaud swings Mélisande by her hair, left and right and right and left, the dummy must endure almost comical abuse. When Pelléas and Golaud edge along the wall of the subterranean vault, the Pelléas-dummy is enclosed in a glass cylinder, looking like a sleep-pod for interstellar trips in a science-fiction movie, and mad scientist Golaud turns on the valves of gas tanks in order to flood the cylinder with dense fumes—clearly Golaud has contrived the whole episode for the sake of persecuting Pelléas.

Some of the violence menaces the singers as well as the dummies. In the very first scene, Mélisande threatens to stab Golaud with a dagger as she recounts the harm she endured in her earlier life; and she threatens him again with a dagger as he murders Pelléas in act 4. I like this idea: Maeterlinck’s characters have interchangeably blank souls, and there might be murderous rage in Mélisande, just as there’s certainly a great deal of weakness and fragility in Golaud, a giant of a man, roaring like Othello, but a man who easily gets lost, and whose horse keeps falling on him—bramble patches trouble him, too.

The strangest, most imaginative touch is the presentation of the tower as a Citroën automobile locked in ice. Mélisande stands on top of it as she sings her haunting song and lets her hair down; Pelléas scrutizines her from the driver’s seat, through the car’s outside rear-view mirror, and traps her hair in the car door; eventually Golaud climbs out of the back seat and dismisses the young folk. This will be distasteful to some, but the peculiar suggestion of transient intimacy—necking in the auto in some secluded place, able to zoom away at a moment’s notice—I found moving. And Maeterlinck in some sense wanted to write plays about contemporaneous matters (and occasionally did write plays about contemporary life, such as Le bourgmestre de Stilmonde, 1918, concerning the mayor of a Belgian town during the Great War). He was fascinated by Ibsen’s experiment, in Ghosts, of finding an equivalent for the Necessary of Greek tragedy in congenital syphilis:

We can affirm that the poet who would find today, in the material sciences, in the unknown that surrounds us, or in our own heart, the equivalent of the fatality of the ancients, that is to say a predestining force as irresistible, as universally acknowledged, would for certain write a masterpiece. (Le temple enseveli)

I’m not sure that the world of the internal combustion engine provides much of the fatality of the ancients, but no one should reject out of hand the notion of providing contemporary touches to Maeterlinck—in some sense his plays are Modernist, and concern modern life.

The singing in the production is distinguished. László Polgár is the best Arkël I’ve ever heard—his cavernous voice gives a strong impression of just what Debussy said he wanted, a voice “d’outre-tombe.” Michael Volle’s Golaud is vehement, Wotan-like, somewhat in the manner of George London on the second Ansermet recording, though Volle’s voice is better focused—you often feel that he’s lacerating someone or something, his own heart if nothing else. Pelléas and Mélisande are both cast contrary to type, in enjoyable ways. The Pelléas, Rodney Gilfry, is strong in voice, slim and brawny in physique, a Pelléas unusually commanding, unusually dangerous, with a strong erotic presence—this may actually be closer to what Debussy wanted than the normal neuresthete—we might remember that Jean Périer, the first Pelléas, can be seen in old photos with a mustache and a beard. The Mélisande is Isabel Rey: her voice is richer and more vibrant (sometimes to the point of unsteadiness) than most Mélisandes, but the warmth was welcome in this lost-in-space production—all the singers sang with a humanity that counteracted the deadness of the dolls, the wheelchairs, the ice. The conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, led a taut performance, sometimes refreshingly fast (as in the conversation at the beginning of the scene in the seaside grotto), but full-throated and resplendent at the appropriate moments.

The last thing to mention is the quality of the Blu-ray DVD, almost hair-raisingly excellent: for example, the dark sparkle on the Pollock-like squiggles on the backdrop shone with such clarity that we might have been watching through an airless medium, as if the opera really did take place on the surface of the moon.

Daniel Albright

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