A REVIEW of the premiere (1902) of Pelleas et Melisande complained of the work's "constant nebulosity" and of its "monotonous recitative, unbearable and moribund," remarks which are critical failures because they judge Debussy's original work by precisely the musical conventions which he renounced. His opera eschews the sumptuous polyphony, turgid mythologism, city-directory leit-motives, and vertiginous romanticism of the Ring. Debussy seeks a deeper organicism in which music is not grafted onto drama or drama is used as suggestion for musical contours, but rather where music and poetry are absorbed one into the other to yield an operatic metier of innocence and foreboding disciplined by a sensibility whch treats the quietness of horror and not its gaudiness. Maeterlinsk's play expresses desolation which knows not its own emptiness, the psychology of inexpressible terrors and inexplicable sickness, or as the revenging husband Golaud says, "We cannot see the other side of fate nor the sins of our own." Maeterlinck portrays these largely lifeless souls consumed by irresistible fate with his personal idiom of bare symbolism and rhythm, taking us to the edge of enervation as we begin to feel our own strength and moral consciousness become fluid, then dissolute, and finally desiccated.
Debussy's music provides an iridescent veil which sensitizes each syllable and gesture of the poem. His music illuminates the music from behind. The recitative vocal line partakes of the elastic undulations of the French language in an effort to more naturalistically express character. As he writes, "The feelings of a character cannot be continually expressed in melody. Also, dramatic melody should be totally different from melody in general." Only in a few places, such as Melisande's song at the beginning of Act III and the love duet in Act IV, scene iv, does the melody become genuinely lyrical, as that term is conventionally understood. Debussy's concern for the melody and rhythm of speech, for themes which are insinuating rather than distinctive, for chamber orchestration like evanescent jewelry, and for an architecture of colors, suggest his profound differences with "the old ghost of Klingsor, alias Richard Wagner."
THE NEW ENGLAND Conservatory production was extremely successful musically, and somewhat less successful visually. The purpose of the production was to present the opera as a naturalistic drama. The mood of the vague kingdom of Allemonde is lugubrious, haunting, tenuous. Pelleas is pale and feeble, overcome by destiny; Melisande is fragile with elusive charm, silly yet ruled by fears; Golaud, the main character, is the visible agent of impulsive rages and unanswered atonement. The general atmosphere is one of sombre death and the expectation of death, illuminated only briefly by an abortive infatuation. The problem with scenic representation of Pelleas et Melisande is that its intense symbolism may lead scenic intermediaries either to leave one with vaporous visual suggestions, which cause bewilderment, or with disfiguring interpretations, which cause exasperation. The main problem with the Conservatory production was its reliance on an unimaginatively employed diorama yielding only the sun and moon on occasion, and totally failing to conjure the forest or grotto scenes. The lighting too often cast a mustard pall on the actors, with the exceptions of Act IV scene i and Act V throughout. The direction failed to take to heart Debussy's insistence that an improper gesture would mar a scene; the actors' gestures were perilously close to woodenness, which is at odds with the demands of the text. The quality of the singing was thoroughly satisfying. Roger Lucas as Pelleas and Barbara Hocher as Melisande were the weakest; Ben Lyon as Golaud was very fine in an extremely taxing role, but Mark Pearson as Arkel was the finest singer of the evening. Cheryl Bibbs as Yniold effectively delivered the crucial line "I must go and tell something to someone," and Jan Curtis as Genevieve provided unfailingly pleasant work. All of the singers had to contend with the ungrateful task of singing idiomatic French vocal lines in translation. The Conservatory orchestra was simply superb, marvellously negotiating the conversation of timbres and rhythms.
This production of Pelleas et Melisande is one of the most significant musical events of the year. It is an opera in which apprehension and enjoyment are indissuble. We have no vocabulary with which to discuss Pelleas and that is probably a blessing. Its demands are all the more exacting because the work seems so insubstantial. Debussy's humble, intellectual, tender music evokes a complex dramatic tissue in which each chord serves to intensify awareness of suffering. This great work whispers the secret that "People die discreetly, like one who has had enough of this planet, the Earth, and is going away where the flowers of tranquillity blossom."