This live BBC broadcast of Claude Debussy’s ground-breaking opera Pelléas and Mélisande was recorded at the Coliseum in 1981. The unique performance is now available on CD for the first time, as part of Chandos’ Opera in English historical series, performed by the English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Mark Elder, with the soloists Neil Howlett, Eilene Hannan, and Robert Dean playing out the tragic love triangle.
It is not so much the extremity of emotions in opera that moves us, but their intensity. And intense emotion does not need to be loud, or dramatic. It can be quiet, deep, and profound, as in this operatic masterpiece, based on Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama. With its simple setting of every day words, and slow-burning passion, the opera emerged in the early twentieth century as the very antithesis to the Wagnerian style. In the words of Debussy himself: ‘I imagine a kind of drama quite different from Wagner’s in which music would begin where the words are powerless as an expressive force. Music is made for the inexpressible.’
Debussy purposely avoided elaborate and lyrical language, and wrote in the simplest prose. In fact, most of the characters speak to one another in plain speech, and everything they say is, on the surface, completely transparent. But the waters run deep, and as questions bring about either the wrong reply or no reply at all, the simple language only deepens the obscurity of what is actually being said.
The plot is based on a tragic love triangle. Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her back to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. Here Mélisande becomes increasingly attached to Golaud’s half-brother, Pelléas, arousing Golaud’s jealousy. Golaud goes to excessive lengths to find out the truth about the relationship and Pelléas eventually decides to leave the castle, but he arranges to meet Mélisande one last time and the two finally confess their love for each other. Golaud, who has been eavesdropping, rushes out and kills Pelléas. Not long after, having given birth to a daughter, and with Golaud still begging her to tell him ‘the truth’, Mélisande dies.