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Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a unique work in the lyric repertoire coming as it does at the breakaway from Romanticism to Modernism. The revolutionary link between the text and the music, the subtle orchestration, the intimate vocal writing and Maeterlinck’s poetic ambiguity requires a very special effort on the part of the singers, the conductor and the listeners. It is typical of Ludovic Morlot, the Monnaie’s new resident conductor, to have chosen this far from easy work for his first production in our opera house.
Pelléas et Mélisande is unique in the history of opera: a particularly French work which, nonetheless, is influenced by Wagner’s music – in particular Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal – with one foot in the 19th century and the other in the 20th century. What does it mean to you?
This work is truly unique. It shows all the signs of being influenced by Wagner even if Debussy denied it at every turn. We also see a tribute to Wagner in the death of Mélisande which, even if it is fundamentally different, makes us think of Isolde’s Liebestod. As well, Debussy included themes that have many similarities with Wagner’s leitmotif in the orchestra score: however, contrary to what we see in Wagner, in Debussy these themes never appear in the vocal parts. In spite of all these influences Debussy succeeded in composing a completely singular work. This shows itself on various levels, as much in the orchestral score as in the vocal parts; the vocal writing is very special, a bit like an enormous recitative. It gives extraordinary poetry to this work. Pelléas et Mélisande signals, on the one hand, the end of the Romantic tradition and, on the other, the beginning of the Modernism of the 20th century. Pierre Boulez sees Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune – written around the same time – as the break between Romanticism and Modernism. I think that Pelléas et Mélisande also belongs in that category.
Debussy used be considered an Impressionist, a label that put the emphasis on the indistinct and the vague. Today we prefer to call him a Symbolist to emphasise the incredible level of detail in his music. How do you see his music?
I totally agree with the more recent definition. I lean towards a symbolic interpretation of Debussy’s music. It is immediately noticeable that his symphonic music, for example La Mer, makes no claims on Impressionist painting, whereas the search for precision, simplicity and clarity is extraordinary. The same is true of an opera like Pelléas et Mélisande, carried by a very poetic text, as it is of a purely instrumental work. For me, La Mer only works if it is played in a Symbolist vein. In fact Debussy himself said that he hadn’t wanted to evoke the sea but rather the feelings that it awakes. This places this work firmly in the same aesthetic as Beethoven’s Pastoral: “Mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Malerei” (an expression of feelings rather than a painting). Debussy is almost Mahler-like in the precision of his musical notation; it is particularly striking in the vocal writing on the level of the intervals. I think the work has everything to gain if we insist on the same precision in performance. The search for this clarity and the blending of the timbres reinforces the poetry. Wagner was an amazingly talented orchestrator, but Debussy’s subtle orchestral timbres are easily as innovative!
It is often said of Pelléas et Mélisande, that it is a work “more respected than loved”. What’s your opinion?
That’s a fact. Even if you approach it with affection and respect, Pelléas et Mélisande is still a masterpiece which requires a huge amount of effort if we are to enter its world. The difficulty of accessibility doubtless stems from the fact that Pelléas et Mélisande is undeniably based on the principle of anti-climax. As the music constantly avoids a climax the listener is prevented from being carried away by it. There is never an impression of accomplishing something because everything remains subtle down to the smallest nuances. Even the culminating dramatic point, the death of Melisande in Act V, takes place very coldly. There is also an overriding ambiguity in the feelings: nothing is explicit, everything is very subtle through the use of very refined colours. In spite of these colours and sensuality the work remains very intellectual. That is also undeniably linked to the text: Maeterlinck’s play is as important as Debussy’s music. And, of course, we hit another problem here for that means that the work is very difficult to understand for a non-Francophone audience. It is necessary to appreciate the orchestral subtleties, by turns, as a support for the text, in parallel with the text, or in contradiction with the text. The musical aspect is not, on its own, enough to understand the work.
There aren’t many points of comparison for Pelléas et Mélisande in the history of opera, because of the revolutionary rapport between language and music. It must be a huge challenge for a musical director to sustain the tension and to find a fair balance between the stage and the orchestra pit.
Yes, it’s true you don’t find many similar works in the history of opera. Maybe we can find parallels in the dramatic recitative of Mussorgsky or the spoken melodies of Janácĕk? But Pelléas et Mélisande is, effectively, a huge challenge to any conductor because it’s an opera that’s more spoken than sung. The difficulty is to find the right rhythm as well as the melodic arches for the recitatives. And, of course, the orchestra must never mask the singers.
Don’t you think Pelléas is a daring choice for a musical director making his debut in a new house? In a work of this kind a conductor can’t really shine, for that chamber music would have been better.
Everything is difficult when you want to do it well! I absolutely wanted to do a work by Mozart during my first year in the job, and to contrast with that I wanted to do a work from the French repertoire. The choice of Pelléas et Mélisande was obvious for me because I had worked on various productions of it when I was Bernard Haitink’s assistant. I have spent a lot of time in Debussy’s company! I also think Pelléas et Mélisande is well-suited to the intimacy of the Monnaie theatre. It isn’t, admittedly, a work in which a conductor can shine, but it represents what I want to do in music: to be a team player at the heart of the group, with an orchestra, a stage director. It is really what theatre is about, collaboration, and that’s what pleases me in music.
Is that the bottom line for you?
Yes, absolutely! I have always wanted to do both symphony music and opera. In opera, what is fantastic is that I can work for weeks on the same work and thus get really into it. It’s just not possible to do that with the symphonic repertoire. I am therefore delighted to present this production, even more so as it will be my very first opera at the Monnaie. And, what’s more, we have the best cast of singers you could ever dream of!
Interview by Reinder Pols