Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

 CUOS Pelléas et Mélisande artwork by Anna Trench
CUOS Pelléas et Mélisande artwork by Anna Trench

Well tonight’s the night. My son and I are off to the opera again. This time it’s just a local one but I couldn’t be more excited. It’s the local students, the Cambridge University Opera Society (CUOS), putting on Debussy‘s Pelléas et Mélisande and we’re going to the opening night.

I’ve been doing some homework. There are three recordings available on Spotify:

  1. Eric Tappy, Gérard Souzay, Erna Spoorenberg, Orchestre De La Suisse Romande & Jean-Marie Auberson
  2. Frederica von Stade/José Van Dam/Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
  3. Roger Desormière/Choeurs Yvonne Gouverné/Orchestre Symphonique de Paris/Dame Maggie Teyte/Alfred Cortot/Mary Garden

CUOS Pelléas et Mélisande, Christopher Stark conducting
Christopher Stark conducting in rehearsal (from Facebook group)

We’ve seen the CUOS perform twice before, both last year. Firstly we saw them do Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and then Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Both were excellent, but The Turn of the Screw was particularly fine. We went down to see it done professionally at the ENO but the CUOS performance is still our favourite. No small part of that comes from the amazing work of the orchestra, so knowing that the conductor, Christopher Stark, is also conducting the Debussy tonight just adds to the antici … pation.

As an added bonus on the first and last nights there will be short talks given by Professor Robin Holloway and Dr Natasha Grigorian, Cambridge experts on Symbolism, 20th Century Opera and the work of Debussy and Maeterlinck. So we’ll be getting there early for the 19:00 talks’ start, touch wood it won’t be too dry for a 15 year old lad.

There’s also an interesting brief section on Pelléas et Mélisande in the book I’ve just finished, Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise. Here’s what Ross has to say about the opera (from page 47).

With the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, sketched in the early 1890s and then extensively revised before its 1902 premiere, Debussy created a new kind of drama, using Wagner as raw material. The text is by the Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, and, as Strauss would do in Salome, Debussy set Maeterlinck’s play word for word, following its riddling prose wherever it took him. The love triangle of Pelléas, his half brother Golaud, and the inscrutable wandering princess Mélisande moves towards a grim climax, but most of the action takes place offstage; the score places the listener in a liquid medium into which individual psychologies have been submerged. Debussy’s established resources—whole-tone scales, antique modes, attenuated melodies that rise from wavering intervals—conjure an atmosphere of wandering, waiting, yearning, trembling.

Later come glimpses of a beautiful country on the other side. When Pelléas and Mélisande finally confess their love for each other—"I love you," "I love you too," without accompaniment—the orchestra responds with a simple textbook progression moving from a tonic chord to its dominant seventh, except that in Debussy’s spectral scoring it sounds like the dawn of creation. A similar transfiguring simplicity overtakes the prelude to Act V, in which we discover that Mélisande has given birth to a child

Spectral scoring that sounds like the dawn of creation? No pressure then 😉

Josephine Stephenson (Yniold)
Josephine Stephenson (Yniold) in rehearsal (from Facebook group)


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