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15 October 2005

Pelléas et Mélisande

By Claude Debussy

Libretto: Maurice Maeterlinck

Performers: Colette Alliot-Lugaz (Mélisande), Didier Henry (Pelléas), and Gilles Cachemaille (Golaud); Charles Dutoit conducting the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, 1991

Want to know the plot? Click here.

"Je t'observais, tu étais là, insouciante peut-être, mais avec l'air étrange et égaré de quelqu'un qui attendrait toujours un grand malheur, au soleil, dans un beau jardin." Arkel à Mélisande

I saw this opera by accident among those at my local library branch, and I picked it up because of the book I was reading, In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden - the title for which comes from this libretto. An accident of association, for sure, but a happy accident. This was a marvelous opera, drastically different from the others I have listened to thus far. It is no staged spectacle like Aida. It is no quick, almost frivolous love story like La Bohème. And surely it did not contain the memorable, familiar musical passages of Carmen.

Instead, Debussy's experimental, impressionistic opera is one that struggles for emotional truth and stark, quiet, building tensions. Mélisande is a slightly creepy, enigmatic woman of unexplained origins and unknowable intentions. She loves Pelléas, but in what way? She married Golaud, but why? She is the crux of the other characters' actions and fates, but she is like a ghost - a woman-child of rare strength and seductive vulnerability. Golaud says, "Listen - I am so close to [her eyes] that I can feel a little breeze when the eye-lashes blink, and yet I am nearer to the great secrets of the next world than I am to the smallest secrets of those eyes!"

Pelléas is inexorably drawn to her, but not in the careless, obsessive way Don José lusts suddenly for Carmen, with the flick of her flower and at the expense of his love for Micaëla. No, Pelléas - the poor dear - loves Mélisande simply, without pretense and without regard for his bro- ther's jealousy. And Golaud's outward show of strength is just that - a show. When he hoists up his young son to peer into Mélisande's window in an attempt to learn more of her relationship with Pelléas, we see a coward using his child to fuel his obsessive jealousy. He inadvertently squeezes the boy's legs in fury, leaving bruises. The tension is incredible.

Both men love Mélisande with an ardor that borders on sadism. Pelléas makes love to her hair, releasing her "doves" into the sky, and pulling at her until she cries. Golaud abuses and shouts at her while she kneels before him, forcing her to believe that death would be a better fate. The story is rich with secretive meanings and half-answers in the symbolism of her lost ring, the horse that flings Golaud, and the three beggars by the cave where Pelléas and Mélisande hide. Even the music serves to keep the opera's secrets. Debussy wrote in 1909, "...notice that the motif which accompanies Mélisande is never altered; it comes back in the fifth act unchanged in every respect, because in fact Mélisande always remains the same ... without anyone ever having understood her" (notes, p. 12).

Arias are scarcely to be found here. There are no soprano showstoppers. Words are whispered. Silences linger. The interludes are so gentle as to become lullabies between scenes, haunting taunts of things to come. This was a wonderful, memorable two hours of expressive, realistic storytelling - a beautiful, emotional opera.

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