Ideal Pelléas

It may be redundant to speak of an ideal Pelléas et Mélisande. The work is symbolist, which means it’s by definition a kind of ideal work. And notice I did not say “An” or “The” ideal Pelléas. It was “Ideal Pelléas”, where the modifier is an epithet, like Honest Abe.

I want to avoid any suggestion that there’s only one way to do it even if Claude Debussy might not agree with my free-wheeling philosophy. I am writing in anticipation of some objections to a production that’s upcoming in the Toronto area. Against the Grain Theatre are staging Pelléas later this week. I have no doubt their staging will be inventive & interesting: as always. Their team is creative, their ideas fertile.

But oh no, you may say, they’re doing it with piano.

Indeed there has been a bit of a tempest in a teapot in the USA –via the NYTimes– concerning a planned production of a Wagner opera using synthesizers instead of orchestra. Ha..!  I think Wagner himself would be fine with it, especially if he were witnessing the slow death of the art-form of opera.  I won’t lay blame upon labour or management, except to say that in some cities opera seems to be in trouble. Thank goodness Toronto has been spared (so far). Let’s say, then, that opera needs to be open to alternative ways of being staged.

But is it just about money, saving the expense of the orchestra?  Let’s remember our ideal Pelléas that we’re hoping for. We saw a small orchestra assembled by AtG for their Messiah and also for Figaro’s Wedding last summer, so there may be concerns.  Why with piano?

That’s the funny thing. Let’s look at what Debussy himself had in mind.

In May 1893 Maurice Maeterlinck’s play of the same name was staged by a group who became the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, led by Aurélien Lugné-Poe (I saw the accent placed on the last ‘e’ a few times but that’s wrong, given that his real name was simply “Lugné” + name of the great American poet “Poe” appended: Poe being a huge hero of the French symbolists).

They gave the play precisely one performance. One only. And Debussy was there.

In 1895 Théâtre de l’Oeuvre announced the intention of staging the play again. And then they cancelled: because Debussy had announced that he was going to put on his operatic setting of the play that year.

Now wait a minute, I can just hear you thinking. How could that be? Debussy only finished the piano score in 1895. He orchestrated in the years leading up to its premiere in 1902, and indeed added a lot of music at the last minute when the tiny wings at the opera couldn’t handle the required set changes. So how could he have announced a plan to stage it in 1895..? Was Debussy telling tales, or…

OR maybe he was perhaps planning to do what he did on other occasions. When he wrote his Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, yes it’s an orchestral piece, but he played a piano version for several of his friends at this time. The performance for his intimate circle, when he played it for Mallarmé especially, the two alone in the room with the piano & the faun & nymphs, would be something different than when the piece was performed for a large audience. The symbolist idea (or ideal?) was never about blatancy, but about intimation, indirect communication. To hint at something was the symbolist way.

Therefore we might point to the piano version of 1895, especially when the play was still fresh in Debussy’s mind, as his ideal version, the one he played for friends. He’d sing all the parts.

Did he plan to have singers for a performance in 1895? We don’t know.

(i hope not… but it’s not as ludicrous as it sounds.  recording was just barely beginning. nobody knew what pelleas sounded like, right? it’s not as though we had any other version to compare him to. )

What’s the relationship between the piano version and the orchestrated piece, I have to wonder…? Perhaps it’s an incomplete shell, a shadow of what the piece is to become with orchestral colours.


Yet it’s worth remembering another symbolist example. Maurice Denis & Paul Gaugin –two of les Nabis—were very close with Maeterlinck and his circle. Denis (who also created the cover for the first edition of La demoiselle elue) did the program for Pelléas’ premiere (the play in 1893 that is), including a fascinating image of a woman who is likely his beloved; they married later in 1893. Every woman he painted for a year or two had this same face, because she was his ideal.

Does it matter that they are all the same woman? like a dream? (click to see original article)

There are paintings where one sees a group of women, each with the same face, like a crowd of ideal women (if you like this idea), or perhaps like a group of mannequins (if you don’t).

I love it.

But excuse me if I digress, as I am sitting in a hotel room, and my mind is wandering.

A Toronto art professor coined a term for a show of Gaugin & his circle awhile ago. She called them “cloisonists”. It’s a valid description of a style where they create outlines which they colour in. You could compare their paintings to

  • cloisonné—as the professor did—the style of ceramic where blocks of a colour are separated by metal outlines
  • cartoons –a less glorified analogy—at least in the newspaper or print media, which are usually also outlines coloured in as blocks of a single colour
  • stained glass: which could be the most apt reference… I almost said “reverence”. But Gaugin at this time often painted religious allegories, so why shouldn’t his paintings resemble stained glass?

So let’s think for a minute about this composition process and what it resembles. In effect the space and figure ground relationships are all defined pretty much in the outline phase, with colour at the end. There might be scope for editing afterwards, but in effect it seems as though there’s a two- step process, where the colour is after the fact.

I may be over-simplifying, but I can’t help noticing the similarity to the two-step process of writing an opera, where at least some composers make a sketch or short-score, possibly with a piano accompaniment, before orchestrating later (or if you’re like some composers I could name, you even get someone else to do the orchestration, in which case, the piano version really IS the composer’s product). If you do an outline and colour it in later, pardon me if it reminds me of paint-by-numbers or a colouring book, that’s already finished in one sense even if it requires a last step to be fully polished.

So AtG need make no apology for a Pelléas with a piano. Whether or not it actually came to fruition that way, whether it was really staged in 1895 (i don’t think it was): that’s likely what Debussy had in mind.  It’s part of his process.  It’s very relevant to this ideal, this Pelléas

This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ideal Pelléas

  1. Gianmarco says:

    Fascinating link between cloisonné art and abstract music. I think that with Figaro and Messiah AtG were well within the realm of acceptability given that many other renditions of these pieces have utilized small orchestral forces. However with Pelleas it’s much more difficult for a small company to approximate the composer’s final vision. I think Pelleas will benefit from this intimate approach. It is probably the most conversational of all 20th century operas and I think the intense, personal relationships will benefit from an up close and personal approach. Certainly from my privileged office perch above the courtyard venue it is sounding and looking fabulous!

    • barczablog says:

      You lucky guy (especially thinking of your “privileged perch”). I certainly agree with your assessment –that it’s conversational– and indeed is therefore a huge influence away from operas requiring singers to sing full out throughout. The last scene especially, is the antithesis to all other death scenes in opera, which might be why it’s possibly the most genuinely spiritual.

      I am opting for closing night because i will be too jet-lagged to handle Thursday’s opening. If you’re there have fun, and i am sure i’ll see you one of these days.

  2. Pingback: Pelléas et Mélisande in the Tanenbaum Courtyard Garden | operaramblings

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