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It does not present a chronological sequence of events existing in time, but a series of flash-backs recounted as a play in music, as in the Monteverdian initiation of opera in the early 17th century. In the mysterious twilight of 'unconscious' irreality and all-too-conscious and brutal reality, the ageing Golaud would seem to be human will and the flesh outworn, while extremely young Mélisande is spirit that is sensuality and sexuality in potentia. The young Pelléas is thus what each needs -- but cannot encompass, since the decay of volition brings the sundering of flesh from spirit. Mélisande fails to grow up from her potentially life-enhancing innocence to experience; Golaud fails to renew his experience in her innocence, so that his flesh turns sadistically savage; while Pelléas, the half-brother of Golaud and the half-lover (?) of Mélisande, who might have restored all to love and life, is slain by their failure, which is also his own. We don't know exactly what happens outside the castle gates, before Golaud's frantically jealous assault; but if the young lovers' passion is consummated in their last moment of F sharp major illumination, when Pélleas claims to hear Mélisande's voice floating over the sea, in spring, the consummation can hardly be accounted a triumph. More probably, their love is not consummated, and the moment of revelation is a dream of what might have been. In any case, the death of Pelléas is a crude murder by a crazed enemy, whose depravity has already been manifest in the horrendous scene in which Golaud hales Mélisande up and down by the (long) hair of her lovely head. We often speak of this opera as though it were a fairy-tale, forgetting that no opera is more terrifying, or more 'real', in what it reveals of the human psyche's darkest depths.

This is why the opera is so tricky convincingly to project in theatrical terms. Opera North made a brave showing in its production of 1995, which is currently revived with the same cast (except for the boy Yniald). Since the opera enacts the story in a series of events occurring historically, but incorporates its psychological substance in purely instrumental interludes between each (usually short) scene, conviction in presenting the piece depends to an unusual degree on the performance of the orchestra. In this case the orchestra, under the inspired direction of Paul Daniels, plays superbly: so that the cumulative effect of the interludes, gathering impetus as the dire action unfolds, witheringly reveals the tragic dimension that Debussy's music gave to Maeterlinck's perhaps too easy expression of fin de siècle bewilderment.

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Copyright © 20 January 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK




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