Pelleas and Melisande

Debussy's impressionist opera charms at Queen's University

Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande - based on a text by the Belgian playwright and poet Maurice Maeterlinck - is a major work of impressionist music. 

Impressionism influenced composers like Debussy, Ravel and Delius, but its reach extended into other areas of the arts, like painting. Musical or otherwise, impressionism is concerned with emotion and individuality, rather than realism, and as such, Pelleas and Melisande is a prime example of the impressionist philosophy. 

Pelleas and Melisande is firmly rooted in Debussy’s own style of writing. In harmonic and melodic terms, it can be seen as a precursor to the work he would develop in later years - including his dramatic solo piano music, Children’s Corner, Estampes and in the two books of piano preludes which, perhaps above all else, epitomize Debussy’s personality as a composer. 

With Pelleas and Melisande, Debussy strove to create a work unbound from the restraints of classicism or romanticism, freeing up the possibilities of how music might narrate a story based largely around the follies of love, power, deceit, tragedy and mysticism. 

The story is also of particular interest in that there is much left to the imagination both in dramatic terms, and also from a stylistic point of view with relation to how Debussy wrote for voices.

In the first instance, the character of Melisande is simultaneously portrayed as everything and nothing; her history is clouded, we know nothing of where she comes from or who she really is, and by the end of the opera we are left none the wiser. She can also be viewed as a tremendously volatile and divisive character. 

At the same time there is a deeply sensuous and erotic quality to her nature which Debussy epitomises with some of the work’s best moments, mainly in Act 3, Scene 7 when Pelleas and Melisande have an illicit meeting and rather timorously show their affections for one another. 

Pelleas and Melisande is not structurally typical of an 'operatic' work. Ordinarily, subsequent to the standard overture we would have an aria followed by a recitative. In opera the aria is largely seen as the musical equivalent to the theatrical soliloquy – a chance for a character to express a particular idea to the audience from their own point of view. 

Recitative can be seen as the spoken dialogue between characters, as heard in Beethoven's Fidelio and Mozart's The Magic Flute. Here, Debussy uses recitative as the main driving force behind his musical exposition of the characters' thoughts and emotions.

At no point is a character allowed to sing anything so definite as to call it an aria. Rather Debussy chooses to have the whole work sung in a recitative-like manner, constantly shifting and moving along with the characters in the impressionist style. 

The story's ambiguous plot is also reflected in Debussy's vocal writing in that several characters’ parts can be sung by more than one specific voice, whether that be soprano/mezzo-soprano or baritone/bass baritone. 

The Opera Theatre Company has had a long standing reputation for delivering productions of a very high standard. Recent highlights have included their contemporary production of Handel’s Orlando. With Pelleas and Melisande, the setting is the 1920’s, the venue the Great Hall at Queen’s University.

In the role of Pelleas is Thomas Walker, who brings a convincing dramatic urgency to the role, as does Robert Poulton as Golaud. Claire Booth delivers the many faces of the complex Melisande, providing the 'gunpowder' that ignites the rest of the story. Pianists Hugh Tinney and Mariead Hurley help to bring Debussy’s dreamy landscape to life. 

In its time, Pelleas and Melisande was a critically unsuccessful opera, seen to meander around with no central thematic structure or congruency. Yet this OTC production gives the work a charming, chamber-esque quality which opens up the story and allows the audience to relate firmly with its characters. A thoroughly enjoyable impressionist experience. 

Graeme Stewart


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