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Second Sight - Music with Wilfrid Mellers

4. The tragic dimension.
Debussy's 'Pelléas et Mélisande' as in
Opera North's current production


For Wagner the identification, in Tristan und Isolde, of love and death amounted to an apotheosis of humanism, for although Tristan, like all of us, has to die, he dies in the belief that his consuming passion is the universe. More commonly the fin de siècle Death of Europe implied a pessimistic view of human destiny, as is evident in the elegy of Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet, and in Maeterlinck's play Pelléas et Mélisande which Debussy, between 1894 and 1902, respectfully musicked. But whereas in Wagner's work the inner life takes over, in Debussy's work retreat within the psyche becomes an ultimate submission; his characters are lost, will-less, in Milton's 'blind mazes of this tangled wood', and to accept this submission is the only wisdom we can hope for. It doesn't matter that in Debussy's world God as creator and preserver is absent or inoperative, for instead of God, there are only feelings, sensations, and whatever causes sensations. Accepting the flux, human consciousness becomes existence without duration. There are no causes or consequences, only present moments, though some of them are memories of the past.

William Dazely as Pelléas and Joan Rodgers as Mélisande in Opera North's 2001 production of Pelléas et Mélisande. Photo © Opera North/Richard Moran

Yet since Debussy seeks liberation from both past and future, Pelléas et Mélisande takes place in a timeless antiquity that is also an eternal present, and in a selva oscura that is also the pre- or sub-conscious mind. None of the characters 'stands for' Debussy (or Maeterlinck); and Golaud, the only protagonist to attempt, albeit unsuccessfully, to take action about anything, is the villain, albeit a sympathetic one since he is part of us. For the young lovers, Pelléas and Mélisande, the only 'happiness' is acquiescence in their destiny -- what happens to them; and acquiescence becomes identified with inanition. This is why the opera is that rare phenomenon, a truly revolutionary work of art.

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Copyright © 20 January 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK




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