What’s in a name?
Sometimes we grab onto something in a name, think we know what we have, and miss something else through our assumptions. We’re so enamoured for instance with the mystique of the rose, but we don’t usually talk about the nasty injuries those thorns inflict. I sometimes forget about the hidden peril because of the sweet smell.
Names can be misleading.
Then there’s Debussy, a composer pianists may cosy up to because he can be very gratifying, often remarkably playable, at least in his earlier compositions. His orchestral compositions connote warm & fuzzy.
But Debussy as a purveyor of horror? It’s not the first thing that pops into the mind, at least until you look a bit closer. Debussy actually attempted to set two of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories as opera:
- The Fall of the House of Usher
- The Devil in the Belfry
La chute de la maison Usher and Le diable dans le beffroi were to be a double-bill, a commission from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Debussy accepted an advance even though he never finished. But the fragments are still fascinating…(!)
Opera Five are taking us into that realm with “In Pace Requiescat”, a program of operatic tricks & treats in the days before Halloween (Oct 27 & 30), with a final performance October 31st:
- Cask of the Amontiallado by Daniel Pinkham
- La chute de la Maison d’Usher by Claude Debussy
- The Masque of the Red Death by Cecilia Livingston (a world premiere)
Before we had psycho-therapy and psychologists we had literature exploring deep primal terror. In Opera’s Second Death (Zizek & Dolar) the suggestion is made that before we could go to a shrink, we could always go to the opera. While they would suggest that opera is dead, replaced by psychiatry, maybe it also means that perhaps opera is still –as ever– tied into our collective unconscious, a powerful well of primal imagery to delight us or drive us mad. In other words, even if we’ve turned to other forms of therapy opera is still there as powerful as ever.
If you’re as old as I am, you recall the derisive laughter that greeted the French response to Jerry Lewis: a comedian they hailed as a genius. Bu Lewis is only one in a long series of artists. The French –especially the Symbolists—appreciated Edgar Allan Poe & Richard Wagner before anyone else noticed them. Another such discovery in France was Alfred Hitchcock. I’ll leave Wagner aside for a moment, to point to the two purveyors of suspense, namely Poe & Hitchcock. There are several similarities to explore between them in their methodology, something I believe someday will result in a book from somebody (me if no one else can be bothered).
I am immediately intrigued with musical treatments of these materials. Regular readers of this space will have seen the correlations I’ve drawn between Bernard Herrmann –one of Hitchcock’s greatest collaborators—and Debussy. The erudite Herrmann was so well-read in classic orchestral scores by the great masters as to emulate famous passages so perfectly as to suggest inter-textual references. I spoke of how in Psycho Herrmann cleverly combines Debussy’s Nuages (a skyscape) and Wagner’s prelude music for Act III of Tristan und Isolde (Tristan’s sexual desperation, but also, a moment when Kurwenal & the shepherd are watching the horizon for a sail on the horizon:in effect they’re watching the sky/horizon awaiting Isolde’s return) at the beginning of the film, a long shot showing clouds & sky.
Even in Debussy’s symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande we have beauty alongside suspenseful portents & brutal acts of violence:
- Golaud (whom Mélisande had thought might be a giant) has been tender & loving, but when he notices that the ring he gave her is missing off her finger he turns abruptly, sending her out harshly in the darkness to find it
- When Golaud notices the closeness between his wife & his half-brother Pelléas, he threateningly takes the latter into the dark cavern under the castle. He says that he’s seen their closeness: and that it must stop.
- In one of the most violent scenes in any opera, Golaud (mad with jealousy) drags his wife around the floor by her hair
- Later we see Pelléas with what might be blood on his face without explanation just before he announces his intention to leave that very night.
- The lovers meet, aware that Golaud is stalking them in the dark, and kiss even though a moment later Golaud strikes Pelléas down
And then in the last act Mélisande dies mysteriously.