We began the show with a rather distinctive piece of music, the only opera completed by Claude Debussy. Debussy began Pelléas et Mélisande in 1893, although he had wanted to write an opera for at least a decade prior. His delay was in part because he was having difficulty finding a play that would fit the vision that he had for “musical theater”. He suffered through several aborted attempts, including a libretto based on the legend of El Cid, as he was wanting to avoid the standard operatic plot devices that were popular in that period. Also important was the influence of Richard Wagner, in an odd sort of way – by 1892 he was tiring of the Wagnerian operatic style, and wanted to go in a completely different direction. In an 1890 letter, he wrote:
“The ideal would be two associated dreams. No time, no place. No big scene […] Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome […] My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes. No discussion or arguments between the characters whom I see at the mercy of life or destiny.”
In 1892, he found a stage play by Maurice Maeterlinck that he thought would be perfect for the concept that he had envisioned. Materlinck’s plays were quite popular in the avant garde community in Paris, and Maeterlinck’s Symbolist work was perfectly in line with the material that Debussy was at that time using for his numerous chansons.
The result is like nothing else in the opera canon, a work which is uniquely and distinctively Debussy’s. Whereas Wagner’s work brings across images of heroes and heroines (i.e. Wotan, Brunhilde, Tristan, Isolde), Debussy’s work is the stuff of dreams, manifested in music. Instead of writing music, Debussy is sculpting sound. This sort of thing pretty much falls in line with the rest of Debussy’s work, i.e. La Mer, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, or aforementioned chansons, and easily ranks among Debussy’s best work. The opera was premiered in 1902 with great success, and is still regularly performed.
In researching other recordings of this great masterpiece, I have stumbled upon this rather revelatory reminiscence by Andre Messager, the conductor who convinced the Opera-Comique to schedule the opera’s premiere, and who conducted it quite successfully. It is quite interesting:
“The singers read through Pelléas at my house, with no one else present. Debussy played his score on the piano, singing all the roles in that deep, cavernous voice of his which often meant transposing lines an octave down, but whose delivery gradually became irresistible. The impression produced by that music on that occasion was, I believe, unique. To begin with there was a kind of mistrust, a resistance, then an ever closer attention, with the emotional temperature rising until the last notes of ‘Melisande’s death’, which fell amid silence and tears. At the end all of us were carried away with excitement, burning to get down to work as soon as possible.
During the weeks that followed, rehearsals took place amid growing enthusiasm; each scene was gone over twenty times without any of the singers showing the least sign of temper in the face of the composer’s demands – and he was very difficult to satisfy. With the first orchestral read-through began a series of gloomy days and discouraging rehearsals. Debussy had had the generous but unfortunate idea of getting the orchestral material copied by a friend who was hard up, but who was a mediocre copyist and a somewhat rudimentary musician, and it took three or four rehearsals simply to get the corrections sorted out. In the meantime a new difficulty had arisen, of some seriousness, to do with the changes of scene. Although the stage of the Opera-Comique looks fairly large, it has such small exits and such narrow wings that it is impossible to manoeuvre even a flat through them, and we were having to make on average three rapid changes per act! Debussy, imagining that these changes would be more or less instantaneous, had linked the different scenes with music that was far too short. He had to return to work, grumbling and raving, and I went to see him every day to snatch away the notes he had written between one rehearsal and another; that is how he wrote the wonderful interludes which provide such a moving commentary on the action.”
Andre Messager, ‘Les premieres representations de Pelleas,’ ReM, 7, 1 May 1926, pp. 110-12, as quoted in from “Debussy Remembered” by Roger Nichols
Tonight’s recording is a 2000 recording that features Anne Sophie von Otter, Wolfgang Holzmair, Laurent Laouri, with Orchestre National De France and the Choeur de Radio De France, under the baton of Bernard Haitink.
For our second opera this evening, we’re going to hear Igor Stravinski’s The Rake’s Progress. Stravinski wrote the opera in 1951, using a libretto written by his friend W.H. Auden and Chester Kalmann, which in turn was based on a series of paintings by William Hogarth (called A Rake’s Progress) done in 1732-1733. It was premiered on 9/11-1951, with noted soprano Elisabeth Schwartzkopf creating the role of Anne Trulove (we’ve heard a number of her recordings in the last few months). The Rake’s Progress was the last work of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, and he would begin writing serialist music in 1952 (I personally think that one can detect a hint of that sort of direction throughout the opera, although it is definitely in a neo-classical mode; I also think that I detect a bit of Broadway musical influence as well). Stravinsky was living in the United States at the time, having left Europe in 1939 upon the outbreak of WWII, and I have no doubt that this is part of the reason why this opera was written in English, which we are told was quite a struggle for him.
Tonight’s recording is a 1994 recording, currently out of print but can be acquired used (possibly reissued here), that features Jon Garrison, Jayne West, Arthur Woodley, Shirley Love and John Cheek. The Orchestra of St. Luke, and the Greg Smith Singers, are directed by Robert Craft, who was a close confidant of Stravinsky’s during the writing of the opera. Interestingly enough, a bit of research suggests several recordings can be found with Stravinsky himself conducting, including a recording of the world premiere, with Elisabeth Schwartzkopf and Robert Rounseville.