Debussy’s PellÈas et MÈlisande

Just as the desire for empathy as the basis for aesthetic experience finds
satisfaction in organic beauty, so the desire for abstraction finds its beauty
in the life-renouncing inorganic, in the crystalline, in a word, in all
abstract regularity and necessity…

Thus all transcendental art sets out with the aim of de-organicizing the
organic, i.e. of translating the mutable and conditional into values of
unconditional necessity. But such a necessity man is able to feel only in the
great world beyond the living, in the world of the inorganic. This led him to
rigid lines, to inert crystalline form. He translated everything living into
the language of these imperishable and unconditional values. For these abstract
forms, liberated from all finiteness, are the only ones, and the highest, in
which man can find rest from the confusion of the world picture.
(Abstraktion und Einf¸hlung, 1907)

The present DVD is Worringer’s dream production of the Debussy opera:
the stage set consists of slabs of stone, a slab of light atop a thick low
turret, white outlines of boxes made of thin planks, and a curved background of
whitish corrugated iron; the colors vary from gray to silver to celadon; a
layer of snow covers the stage floor and snow occasionally falls from above.
The ostumes of the male singers are decorated with scenes that seem to be
abstractions of lunar craters and other extraterrestrialities. The director,
Sven-Eric Bechtolf, listened carefully when Golaud said, “This castle is
very cold and very dark.”

Maeterlinck was in some sense an abstractionist, interested in a kind of
thȂtre pur in which the fairy-tale, art-nouveau-Medieval staging
stylized human life into something simple and intense and stark. But it’s
far from clear that his abstractions are to be considered in any sense chill:
his plays aren’t about ascending into the imperishable and unconditional,
not about finding rest from the world’s confusion, but about tracing the
paths of perishable and confused things in as lucid a manner as he could.
Antarctica isn’t quite the right venue for the words or the music,
although there is some sense in which the characters inhabit a Fortress of
Solitude. Still, when MÈlisande says that she can’t take PellÈas’s
hand because her arms are full of flowers, and we see her holding a heap of
snow, the stage picture touches on something true to the opera’s
aesthetic, the way in which Maeterlinck’s seasons are all, in T. S.
Eliot’s phrase, a zero summer.

This production shows its love for the abstraction not only through frigid
geometries, but also through its predilection for dolls. Each character
cohabits with a life-sized dummy, and in most scenes the singers sing not to
one another but to the dummy of their interlocutor. When the singers actually
turn toward their human counterparts, it creates a feeling of unusual intimacy:
for example, when Golaud examines MÈlisande’s hand, before discovering
the absence of the wedding ring, he clasps both the dummy’s hand and the
singer’s own—you can see how startled she is to feel a human touch.
And when the singers turn away from their human counterparts to sing to the
dummy, it creates a shiver of distance: most of the love duet (act 4, scene 4)
has PellÈas and MÈlisande singing human-to-human, but toward the end there is a
section where she prefers the company of the dummy.

Here Mr. Bechtolf seems on firm ground with respect to Maeterlinck’s
dramaturgy. Maeterlinck in many ways preferred puppets to human actors, and
some of his finest plays were intended for marionettes. He had a dualistic
imagination, and considered that the soul had little to do with the body and
even the body’s passions:

What would happen, for example, if our soul suddenly became visible and she
had to move forward into the midst of a gathering of her sisters, stripped of
her veils, but laden with her most secret thoughts and dragging behind her the
most mysterious acts of her life—acts that nothing could explain? What
would make her blush? What would she want to hide? Would she start to throw,
like a modest women, the long mantle of her hair over the numberless sins of
the flesh? She did not know them, and these sins have never reached her. They
were committed a thousand leagues from her throne; and even the
Sodomite’s soul would pass in the midst of the throng without suspecting
anything, and bearing in her eyes a child’s transparent smile. She
hasn’t intervened, she spent her life close to the light, and this is the
only life she will remember. (Le trÈsor des humbles)

In some sense Golaud has nothing to do with his jealousy, or MÈlisande with
her fragility: there is a part of each of us that is immune from the events of
our lives, a part to which our very character traits are irrelevant. There is
no reason why our soul—a perfectly uninflected thing—might not be
properly represented by a doll.

But I’m not sure that the dolls in this production ever behave in a
fashion congenial to Maeterlinck’s notion of the childlike pathos at the
heart of the human subject. Sometimes they seem to represent social roles, the
outer husks of personality that we display to our acquaintances and our lovers.
Yeats thought that every love affair had four parties: him, her, his mask, her
mask; and the Bechtolf production sometimes takes its cue from that logic. In
the scene in which MÈlisande carelessly tosses her ring above the Fountain of
the Blind, Mr. Bechtolf provides us with four fountains: his, her, his
dummies’, her dummies’; and MÈlisande and her dummy each drop a
ring into a fountain, MÈlisande when she talks of letting her hair down into
the water, the dummy when the ring is supposed to fall. At other moments, it
seems as if the singer represents the character’s soul while the dummy
represents the body: in act 5, the dummy lies in on the sick bed, while
MÈlisande wanders about the room, eventually finding Yniold’s big gold
ball, and eventually leaves the stage, gaily tossing the ball, as the other
characters weep over her dummy-corpse.

Mr. Bechtolf, I suspect, likes dummies mostly because you can inflict a lot
of damage on them, and this is indeed the most violent production of the opera
I’ve ever seen or heard of. Golaud tears off the arm of the dummy-Yniold
in the course of persuading the boy to spy on PellÈas and MÈlisande; and soon
Golaud holds up the dummy’s severed head, the eyes glowing from within by
electric light, in order to see what is above his range of vision. When Golaud
swings MÈlisande by her hair, left and right and right and left, the dummy must
endure almost comical abuse. When PellÈas and Golaud edge along the wall of the
subterranean vault, the PellÈas-dummy is enclosed in a glass cylinder, looking
like a sleep-pod for interstellar trips in a science-fiction movie, and mad
scientist Golaud turns on the valves of gas tanks in order to flood the
cylinder with dense fumes—clearly Golaud has contrived the whole episode
for the sake of persecuting PellÈas.

Some of the violence menaces the singers as well as the dummies. In the very
first scene, MÈlisande threatens to stab Golaud with a dagger as she recounts
the harm she endured in her earlier life; and she threatens him again with a
dagger as he murders PellÈas in act 4. I like this idea: Maeterlinck’s
characters have interchangeably blank souls, and there might be murderous rage
in MÈlisande, just as there’s certainly a great deal of weakness and
fragility in Golaud, a giant of a man, roaring like Othello, but a man who
easily gets lost, and whose horse keeps falling on him—bramble patches
trouble him, too.

The strangest, most imaginative touch is the presentation of the tower as a
CitroÎn automobile locked in ice. MÈlisande stands on top of it as she sings
her haunting song and lets her hair down; PellÈas scrutizines her from the
driver’s seat, through the car’s outside rear-view mirror, and
traps her hair in the car door; eventually Golaud climbs out of the back seat
and dismisses the young folk. This will be distasteful to some, but the
peculiar suggestion of transient intimacy—necking in the auto in some
secluded place, able to zoom away at a moment’s notice—I found
moving. And Maeterlinck in some sense wanted to write plays about
contemporaneous matters (and occasionally did write plays about contemporary
life, such as Le bourgmestre de Stilmonde, 1918, concerning the mayor
of a Belgian town during the Great War). He was fascinated by Ibsen’s
experiment, in Ghosts, of finding an equivalent for the Necessary of
Greek tragedy in congenital syphilis:

We can affirm that the poet who would find today, in the material sciences,
in the unknown that surrounds us, or in our own heart, the equivalent of the
fatality of the ancients, that is to say a predestining force as irresistible,
as universally acknowledged, would for certain write a masterpiece. (Le
temple enseveli

I’m not sure that the world of the internal combustion engine provides
much of the fatality of the ancients, but no one should reject out of hand the
notion of providing contemporary touches to Maeterlinck—in some sense his
plays are Modernist, and concern modern life.

The singing in the production is distinguished. L·szlÛ Polg·r is the best
ArkÎl I’ve ever heard—his cavernous voice gives a strong impression
of just what Debussy said he wanted, a voice “d’outre-tombe.”
Michael Volle’s Golaud is vehement, Wotan-like, somewhat in the manner of
George London on the second Ansermet recording, though Volle’s voice is
better focused—you often feel that he’s lacerating someone or
something, his own heart if nothing else. PellÈas and MÈlisande are both cast
contrary to type, in enjoyable ways. The PellÈas, Rodney Gilfry, is strong in
voice, slim and brawny in physique, a PellÈas unusually commanding, unusually
dangerous, with a strong erotic presence—this may actually be closer to
what Debussy wanted than the normal neuresthete—we might remember that
Jean PÈrier, the first PellÈas, can be seen in old photos with a mustache and a
beard. The MÈlisande is Isabel Rey: her voice is richer and more vibrant
(sometimes to the point of unsteadiness) than most MÈlisandes, but the warmth
was welcome in this lost-in-space production—all the singers sang with a
humanity that counteracted the deadness of the dolls, the wheelchairs, the ice.
The conductor, Franz Welser-Mˆst, led a taut performance, sometimes
refreshingly fast (as in the conversation at the beginning of the scene in the
seaside grotto), but full-throated and resplendent at the appropriate

The last thing to mention is the quality of the Blu-ray DVD, almost
hair-raisingly excellent: for example, the dark sparkle on the Pollock-like
squiggles on the backdrop shone with such clarity that we might have been
watching through an airless medium, as if the opera really did take place on
the surface of the moon.

Daniel Albright

For standard DVD, click below:

image_description=Claude Debussy: PÈlleas et MÈlisande
product_title=Claude Debussy: PÈlleas et MÈlisande
product_by=PellÈas: Rodney Gilfry; MÈlisande: Isabel Rey; Golaud: Michael Volle; Arkel: L·szlÛ Polg·r; GeneviËve: Cornelia Kallisch; Yniold: Eva Liebau; Le berger: Guido Gˆtzen; Le mÈdecin: Guido Gˆtzen. Zurich Opera House Chorus and Orchestra. Franz Welser-Mˆst, conductor. Sven-Eric Bechtolf, stage director. Rolf Glittenberg, set design. Recorded live from the Zurich Opera House, 2004.
product_id=TDK DVBD-OPPEM [Blu-Ray DVD]