Saturday, January 15, 2011


Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 9th of December 2012 at 3.04 - 5.40



DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera in five acts
Mélisande.................... Maria Ewing
Pelléas.......................... François Le Roux
Golaud......................... José van Dam
Arkel............................ Jean-Philippe Courtis
Geneviève.................... Christa Ludwig
Yniold.......................... Patrizia Pace
Shepherd...................... Jean-Philippe Courtis
Doctor.......................... Rudolf Mazzola
Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Phil/Claudio Abbado 
(DG 435 344)

Debussy's only completed opera (1902) is coming to us every year now, and I have several audio and video recordings of it, but for a long time in my life I had never heard this work.   It never came my way via radio or gramophone till my displacement to New Zealand (I had the same trouble getting to hear Bach's Mass in B minor). In the Australian half of my existence I had been obliged to study (in a 4th-year course on French novels about youth, romans de jeunesse) Le Grand Meaulnes, by Henri Fournier, known as Alain-Fournier (1886-1914, killed in WW1). In his correspondence with his close friend Jacques Rivière (from 1905 till 1914), which I redd (sic) with great interest and feeling, they were continually raving about this opera, and seem to have taken every opportunity to see it. Mary Garden from Scotland sang the role in those days; I have heard an interview made in her old age; she was asked whether she had a love-affair with Debussy, and I think she replied dismissively that performing the piece was so exciting that she did not need anything else. Actually, when he chose Mary Garden for the part, instead of Georgette Leblanc (a favourite of Maeterlinck, who provided the libretto) Maeterlinck became litigious and violent, but did not succeed in stopping the show from going on.

In our video-opera group in 2011, we undertook intensive study of Claude Debussy’s  masterpiece in this genre (though he calls it a lyric drama in five acts), based on (or simply abridged from) the play of Maurice Maeterlinck (1892), set in the royal castle in the imaginary kingdom of Allemonde (not Germany [Allemande] but ‘another world’, perhaps). We are offered scenes from the life of a typical royal family (not dis-functional but not dat-functional either); jealousy is the dominant passion. The mysterious Mélisande, who is brought into their castle must have been a princess because she has thrown her crown away at the start of the action (slow-moving, in time with the music, with endless questions being asked). Amid all the anguish is a central love scene, involving the two young people of the title, who should not be doing such things.
    We have looked at two productions: one from Vienna (V), the other from Glyndebourne (G).
G has all the scenes inside the castle, even the outside ones; maybe this indicates that all the characters are locked into their family fate and personal destinies (also saves on expensive scenery changes).
Pelléas : (young prince) Stéphane Degout (V),  Richard Croft  (G)
Mélisande (wandering waif): Natalie Dessay, Christiane Oelze
Golaud (older prince): Laurent Naouri, John Tomlinson
Arkel (old grandfather king): Phillip Ens, Gwynne Howell
Geneviève (mother of the princes): Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Jean Rigby
Theater an der Wien, ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, Bertrand de Billy
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Davis
Director : Laurent Pelly (V), Graham Vick (G)

PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE (1902)  Act 1  (30m)
[1 . 1]  At a Fountain in a Forest (or: on a table in a room in the castle, G! )
Prince Golaud has lost his way in the woods, while chasing a boar he has wounded. He hears a young woman sobbing; he approaches her gently, but she is suspicious of him, and wants him to leave her alone; she eventually tells him that she has fled from her tormenters; he notices a crown shining in the water; yes, an unnamed ‘he’ had given it to her, it represents all her misery, and she does not want it to be fished out of the fountain. When he introduces himself as Prince Golaud, grandson of Arkel, the old king of Allemonde, she remarks on his grey hair; he responds by pointing to a few (V has his head and beard all grey; G has no grey visible!). After much persuasion she agrees (apparently) to go with him (G has him carrying her cosily, wrapped only (!) in a sheet; V sends him off first and she then follows).
[1 . 2]  A Room in the Castle
This must be more than six months later, as Geneviève (the mother of Golaud, and of Pelléas by a second husband) has a letter from Golaud, addressed to Pelléas, and she is reading it aloud to her father Arkel. The situation is that Golaud has married the girl; her name is Mélisande; and he wants to come home, if Arkel will allow him to bring this woman into the family. Would Pelléas kindly put a light in the tower facing the sea, if it is all right; otherwise he would sail by and never return. (If he had sailed away at this point, on his boat with big sails, none of the trouble would have occurred. ) Arkel’s response is not enthusiastic: he refers to destiny a few times; Golaud’s first wife had died leaving him with their little son Yniold; Arkel had sent him to woo Princess Ursula, hoping that the new marriage would restore his happiness, while ending long wars and old enmities. Pelléas comes in to say that he has received anothr letter, this one from his friend Marcellus, who knows he is dying, and is asking him to come. Arkel reminds Pelléas that his father (Geneviève’s second husband, whom we never see) is also dying, upstairs, and he should wait till Golaud comes back, to see how he settles in.  Geneviève reminds her son to light the lamp in the tower.
[1 . 3]  Outside the Castle (or: in the drawing room, G)
Golaud has now returned, and Geneviève and Mélisande are in the gardens; the young woman finds it dark and somber because of the surrounding forests; but there is brightness from the sea. Pelléas appears and predicts a storm; voices of seamen are heard, and a ship comes into view; Geneviève goes inside to attend to Yniold. P says to M, Will you give me your hand? She replies that her hands are full of flowers (watch how each director makes this happen at the last moment). I’m going away tomorrow, says he; Why are you going away? she asks, and Act 1 ends

PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE (1902)  Act 2 (30m)
[2.1] At a well in the park
It is a hot day, and at noon Pelléas takes Mélisande to a shady part of the grounds. He shows her the Fountain of the Blind; its water used to cure blind people, but since the old king himself is almost blind, it is not visited any more. She leans over and gazes into the water; he offers her a hand, in case she slips on the marble; she protests that she wants to put both her hands in, as they feel sick. She can not reach the water, but he notices that her hair went into it. “Yes, it’s longer than my arms”, she says, and directors blithely let her sing that, even if her hair is short. He immediately asks: “It was beside a well that he [his elder brother Golaud] found you?” She adds that he wanted to kiss her, but she would not let him. Then she starts playing with the ring that Golaud gave her (a wedding ring, we may presume), throwing it up in the air to see it shine in the sunshine (they are supposed to be in the shade!). This is a well, not a lagoon [à la Goon] but she comes up with the immortal line: “It’s fallen in the water”. Great perturbation, not to say hysterics. Midday was sounding ominously when it disappeared. What will we do? (Let me tell you: call the servants and send down a diver to retrieve it; but then the plot in the pot would not be able to thicken). He says she should tell Golaud the truth.
[2.2] A room inside the castle
Golaud has fallen off his horse while he was hunting; it bolted for no reason just as it struck twelve noon. (Ah! that fatal hour). He landed underneath it. He is on his bed, and he tells her  about his accident. Then she speaks about her uneasiness living in the castle, and this discussion goes on at length. He takes her tiny hands in his to comfort her (“I could crush them like flowers”, he notes). “Hang on, where’s the ring I gave you?” He confirms it was “the ring from our nuptials”. She tells a stupid lie: she must have lost it in a cave on the seashore. He makes a big thing about this; it is very important, and so she must go and get it before the tide comes in and washes it away. Pelléas will go with her! Oh no! She goes off weeping, crying that she is not happy.
[2.3] At a cave by the sea
 It is very dark, but the moon might break through the clouds. When it does they look inside the cave and see three sleeping beggars; there is famine in the land. She wants to go back to the castle, but walking alone. He says they can come back another day. (Somebody should tell them that they must stop meeting like this.)

PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE (1902)  Act 3 (23m)
[3.1] At one of the castle towers
Mélisande is by a window, combing her hair for the night, and singing to herself: “My long hair goes down to the bottom of the tower ... all day long  my hair is waiting for you, Saint Daniel and Saint Michael and Saint Raphael; I was born on a Sunday at noon”. Pelléas comes along the path, hello-ing. They start a conversation; he has never seen so many stars; he would like her to lean out further so that he can  see her hair better; she thinks she looks terrible in that pose, but he wants to be able to touch her hand (kiss it, even); he is going away the following day; she does not want him to go, he fondles her hair and gets entangled in it (every man’s fantasy? but the hair should be black, not blond) and he can not see the sky; it loves him more than she does;  he starts tying it to a tree (no inkwells handy); he sends kisses up along the electric wires of her hair; doves fly from the tower; someone is coming; it is her husband Golaud. He asks his half-brother what he is doing, but does not wait for an answer; he tells them they are behaving like children, orders her to pull her head in, and takes him away.
[3.2]  In the castle vaults
A short and sinister scene (not immediately after the preceding): Golaud tells Pelléas to lean over the disused well and smell its stagnant water; Pelléas is afraid, and asks his brother to take him away from the stifling air.
[3.3]  A terrace at the entrance to the vaults
The music reflects the change from the oppressive gloom to the welcoming sunshine, the verdant garden with its fragrant  roses; it is midday (the clock is chiming the ominous hour again); their mother is seen with Mélisande at a tower window. Golaud comes to the point: he had heard what they were saying the previous night; they were only playing children’s games, but it must not happen again; she is delicate, and will soon become a mother, so she must not be upset; you should stay away from her, but be tactful.
[3.4] A disturbing scene: Golaud employs his young son Yniold to spy on his wife Mélisande and his half-brother Pelléas. 

[4.1] A room in the castle. Pelléas is speaking to Mélisande; he has just come from the room of his father (the king we never see, because he is bed-ridden) who has told him to go on a far journey, because he is looking like someone who has not long to live. P asks M to meet him in the park after dark, for a final fond farewell. Grandfather Arkel now addresses M, making the longest speech in the whole work; he is sorry the place has been like a charnel house all the time she has lived there, but, now that P’s father has revived, the breath of death is dissipating; he is an old man, and he wants to kiss her and enter a new era. Golaud comes in (so no kiss?) and says P is leaving in the evening. Arkel notices blood on his forehead; he says he has been through a thorny hedge. He has a lot to say, and he asks for his sword. He treats M roughly, dragging her by her hair, and finally leaves her with the feeling that he does not love her any more.
[4.2] By the fountain of the blind men, in the park. (We stay indoors, though). Little Yniold is trying to lift a rock, to get his golden ball, when a flock of sheep come by; the shepherd (or Shepherd the butler) says they are not going to the sheepfold (but to the slaughterhouse). P and M now have their last clandestine tryst, with a long love duet. Golaud sees them kissing and slays his brother.

[5.1] A bedchamber in the castle. Mélisande has been recovering from a wound inflicted by Golaud, and she has given birth to a girl. Arkel and the doctor are with her. Then Golaud comes in and interrogates her; he demands the truth about her relationship with Pelléas; yes, she loved him (and where is he now?); their love was innocent, but G can not believe her, and loses his calm again. Arkel speaks to her gently; she feels winter is coming; Arkel shows her daughter to her, but she does not have enough strength to take the babe. Servants appear and stand in silence; at the point where she dies, they kneel. Golaud’s agitation continues. Arkel is removing the baby, saying that she must take her mother’s place in the world now.

(It would not be healthy to feign indifference to the drama and the music; grieving is good for us.)

 Sunday 16th of January 2011 at 3.04 - 7.10
DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera in five acts
Golaud.......................... Gerald Finley
Mélisande..................... Magdalena Kozena
Pelléas.......................... Stéphane Degout
Geneviève..................... Felicity Palmer
Arkel............................ Willard White
Doctor.......................... Paul Corona
Shepherd...................... Donovan Singletary
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch/Simon Rattle (EBU)

Sunday 19th of September 2010 at 3.04 - 6 pm
Pelléas.......................... Yann Beuron
Mélisande..................... Marta Márquez
Golaud.......................... François Le Roux
Geneviève..................... Renée Morloc
Arkel............................ Malcolm Smith
Yniold........................... Léa Pasquel
Doctor.......................... Daniel Djambazian
Pelléas' father................ Andreas Külzer
Duisburg Phil/Rainer Mühlbach  
(recorded in the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Duisburg 
by German Radio, Cologne)

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