January 28, 2005


Savoring Debussy's 'Pelléas' (Anthony Tommasini, January 19, 2005, The New York Times)

Sigmund Freud's seminal "Interpretation of Dreams" was published in 1900. But Claude Debussy had already poked around in the unconscious in his landmark opera "Pelléas et Mélisande," which he had essentially composed (though not orchestrated) by 1895.

Of course, Maurice Maeterlinck, whose play Debussy adapted into his opera, had been treading through Freudian terrain even earlier. Maeterlinck, a leading figure in the Symbolist movement, which arose in the 1880s, espoused veiled emotions, mystery and indirection over realism.

On the surface of a Maeterlinck play, the dialogue might seem everyday, the action inconsequential. But below, his works stirred up disturbing, confounding and sensual feelings. Debussy read the newly published script for "Pelléas et Mélisande" in 1892, saw a production in Paris the next year and immediately seized on it as a subject.

As he wrote at the time, the play had "far more humanity than those so-called 'real life' documents" and contained "an evocative language whose sensitivity can be extended into music and into the orchestra décor." There will be two opportunities to encounter the work here: On Wednesday and Friday, L'Opéra Français de New York will present a staged production of what it calls the "original version" of the opera, for voices and piano. On Jan. 29 the Metropolitan Opera revives Jonathan Miller's alluring 1995 production of the familiar final version.

The mysterious story, set in some vaguely medieval time and place, tells of a sullen middle-aged widower, Golaud, the son of the frail King Arkel of Allemonde. One day, while hunting aimlessly in the forest, Golaud comes upon a lovely, frightened and evasive young woman who cannot bear to say a word about her past life. Passively, she follows Golaud and later marries him, only to find her emotional armor threatened by Golaud's attractive and adoring young half-brother, Pelléas.

For all the perplexing richness of the play, Debussy's deceptively calm music taps the subliminal emotions of the characters more deeply than Maeterlinck's words. Though he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911, Maeterlinck is probably best known today for his role in the creation of Debussy's opera.

"Pelléas et Mélisande" is a radical work, a kind of anti-opera that has long divided audiences. Some listeners find it dramatically static and exasperating. Admittedly, the pacing is glacial; inconsequential events are stretched into entire scenes. Debussy's music, sensuous and radiant, can seem as murky and evasive as Mélisande, the most striking example of a compulsive liar in all of opera. Even Maeterlinck nodded off when Debussy played through the score for him at the piano, though, from all reports, Maeterlinck had little sensitivity for music.

But many other opera enthusiasts (myself among them) find "Pelléas" riveting precisely because it is so daringly restrained and oblique. The subliminal impact of the surging, restless, harmonically lush music charges the grim story with intensity. In a good performance, the conversational quality of the vocal writing has an affecting naturalness and an austere beauty.

It's kind of opera as Muzac.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 28, 2005 11:33 PM

"Does it just go on and on like this" - Richard Strauss

Posted by: Greg Hlatky at January 29, 2005 11:43 AM

I've always loved Expressionist Art, Movies and Theatre but Expressionist music leaves me cold.

Posted by: Bart at January 29, 2005 12:34 PM

Tallulah Bankhead made the definitive comment on Maeterlinck as playwright: on seeing a performance of one of his plays she said, in tones of hushed awe, "There's less to this than meets the eye."

Posted by: Josh Silverman at January 31, 2005 5:24 PM