Struggles of Operatic Proportions – Dubussy’s msterpiece and the operas that might have been

Article by Katharine Camiller

Throughout his career, Achille-Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) was preoccupied with opera. While continually seeking new inspiration to feed his flourishing individuality, he never tired of the operatic genre and contemplated over thirty different theatrical projects, the most complete of which are Rodrigue et Chimène and La Chute de la Maison Usher. His only finished opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (premiered April 1902) was responsible for thrusting the introspective Debussy into the public spotlight and represented a turning point in his turbulent career as he began to be recognised as a great composer. Although Pelléas et Mélisande was a revolutionary work as it offered the first viable alternative to the thundering passions of late nineteenth-century opera, paving the way for modernism and influencing a wide range of composers from Boulez and Bartók to Glass and Gershwin, it is inaccurate to consider Debussy as a composer triumphant in the field of operatic writing. Instead, Debussy experienced a life-long creative struggle with opera, illustrated by his two near-complete works and his masterpiece.

Having newly graduated from the Paris Conservatoire and been awarded the competitive Prix de Rome, Debussy’s first attempt at operatic writing would take the form of Rodrigue et Chimène. In 1892 Debussy wrote to Robert Godot: ‘My life is hardship and misery because of this opera. Everything about it is wrong for me.’ Based on the legend of El Cid, the libretto, written by the Wagnerite Catulle Mendès, was predictable and over-sentimental. The plot follows Chimène’s torment as she finds herself caught between two warring Montague and Capulet-esque families and is forced to choose between loyalty to her family and her love for Rodrigue, who murders her father in an act of vengeance. Despite his reservations about the piece, Debussy dedicated two years of his life to working on this project – Mendès was an influential librettist and a useful ally to have for a young composer seeking to establish himself. Debussy also had financial worries and was under pressure from his parents to make a name for himself – he wrote to his patron Prince Poniatowski in 1893: ‘My mother decided I was not providing what a son ought to, no fame was accruing, and so began a needling campaign.’ However, by the end of 1893 he finally abandoned the opera which he felt compromised his own artistic desires and rather than aiding his progression as a composer, was hindering him. In order to permanently sever ties with the work he claimed that it had been accidentally destroyed, making it impossible for him to return to the work at a later stage in his career. Decades after his death, his sketches for this work would be found and reconstructed by scholar Robert Orledge and the work premiered by Opéra de Lyon in 1995.

Even as early as 1890, three months before he was presented with the libretto for Rodrigue et Chimène, Debussy revealed an interest in working on ‘a symphony on psychologically developed themes for which the idea comes from many a Poe tale, and in particular La Chute de la Maison Usher’. From June 1908 to 1917, Debussy worked most closely on La Chute de la Maison Usher, for which he wrote his own libretto based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story. The libretto describes the incestuous love Roderick has for his sister Madeline, about which he confides in his friend. The work of Poe was particularly popular in France amongst Symbolist writers at the turn of the century and unlike Mendès’ libretto, was ideally suited to Debussy’s music. Poe embodied the mystery and dream-like otherwordliness that Debussy sought to recreate in music. These final years would prove to be perhaps the most frustrating for Debussy, not because he longed to break away from the work as he had with Rodrigue et Chimène, but because he became too immersed in it, unable to close the door on the world he had created by finishing or discarding it. During this time, Debussy’s own life became increasingly fraught with tragedy in the form of his nine year battle with cancer of the colon from 1909, and the invasion of his beloved France as World War One broke out. Debussy took to escaping from the outside world by immersing himself in the world of Roderick Usher, and described in a letter to Louis Laloy that the Usher family was ‘the best family I have’. Just as he began his career torn between his desire for success and his longing for privacy, he would end his life torn between his yearning to complete his life-long project and his fear of being separated from it with nowhere to escape from his own disturbing reality.

Debussy’s desire to escape from reality was not restricted to his final years. Throughout his career he demonstrated a fascination and affinity with the Symbolist language of suggestions, and set to music a number of Symbolist poems by writers such as Verlaine and Mallarmé. In 1893, while working on Rodrigue et Chimène, Debussy discovered the play Pelléas et Mélisande by the Belgian innovator of Symbolist drama, Maurice Maeterlinck, and began work on adapting the play and composing the music as soon as he had been given permission by the dramatist. Maeterlinck was greatly influenced by English-language literature, including the work of Poe. Like Debussy, he compared experiences in his life to the world of Poe, such as his feeling of isolation and decay at his family summer house in the misty flatlands of Oostacke, outside Ghent. In Pelléas et Mélisande in particular, there are a number of Poeian elements, such as the manner in which the forces of fate are transformed into physical objects, and the reference to stagnant water to represent death. What perhaps linked Debussy, Maeterlinck and Poe most strongly was their desire to portray mystery in art, an element that was unhappily absent from Rodrigue et Chimène and explored to the extreme in La Chute de la Maison Usher.

It is unsurprising that Debussy felt drawn to such a story with its evocative language that could easily be extended by music and the combination of the atmosphere of dreams with a sense of humanity. It seems no coincidence that a composer passionately interlinked with his music and divided between immersing himself in his private world of dreams and having to face the outside, hostile world of reality would be attracted to a play that describes the very same conflict experienced by the characters of Pelléas and Mélisande. In addressing this conflict in his composition of Pelléas, Debussy created a new form of operatic expression, which he described as ‘the dramatic melody’. The opening scene ideally illustrates this through the spoken song. Words and phrases are repeated, and the vocal line and orchestra are separated. Rests are also frequently used, creating a speech-like effect in the vocal line, which is often left unaccompanied. Debussy’s performance directions in the vocal parts are extremely precise. In the second scene, he includes instructions such as ‘in a choking effect’ and ‘with suppressed emotion’, revealing how important the realistic portrayal of the characters was to him. Here we find what appears on the surface to be yet another contradiction in Debussy’s art: while he openly strove to create an atmosphere of mystery and dreams in the opera, he concurrently showed a deep interest in the psychology of his central characters and a desire to depict their speech and personalities in as realistic a manner as possible. However, rather than representing opposing elements in his outlook, his complex creation of the character of Mélisande in particular in fact represents a synthesis of conflicting factors.

The beginnings of each act reveal the multifarious behaviour of Mélisande, and as a result, her complicated psychological make-up. In Act One she is immature and child-like. She responds vaguely to Golaud’s questions when he finds her in the forest, revealing only her name and that she is lost and has run away from somewhere ‘loin d’ici’. She appears distracted and focuses on trivial matters such as the colour of Golaud’s hair. In Act Two, far from being the terrified victim of the first act, here she carelessly flirts with danger, and it is Pelléas who is concerned for her safety: ‘Oh! Oh! Prenez garde! Prenez garde! Mélisande! Mélisande!’. She continues to behave in a reckless manner by throwing Golaud’s ring into the air and losing it in the water. By the beginning of the third act, Mélisande begins to shed her childlike status and adopts the role of the seductress, exposing herself to increasingly dangerous situations by leaning out of her tower to allow her hair to cascade over Pelléas. The opening of the fourth act presents Mélisande as a victim, once more powerless in the hands of fate. First Pelléas tells her he is leaving, then Golaud, in a jealous rage, drags Mélisande across the room by her hair. Mélisande now begins to pay for her actions that she had so far escaped, culminating in her tragic death in the final act following the birth of her child.

Why then was Debussy able to successfully complete Pelléas et Mélisande when he had rejected so many other projects? The composer was drawn to the subject of conflict in Rodrigue et Chimène, La Chute de la Maison Usher and Pelléas et Mélisande, perhaps as an unconscious expression of and escape from the various struggles he faced in his own life. The focal point of Rodrigue et Chimène is the conventional conflict between love and duty, and between two families, and the music is dominated by the influence of Wagner. In La Chute de la Maison Usher, Debussy explored both the conflict between life and death and the contrast between friend and enemy, and also blurred the boundaries between brotherly love and sexual love, while striving to create a new kind of music alien to that of Wagner. The conflicting elements in Pelléas et Mélisande however, rather than juxtaposed against one another as opposite extremes, are seamlessly woven together and manifested in the central female character. Similarly, Pelléas et Mélisande represents a synthesis of the seemingly conflicting musical inspiration of Wagner and the dramatic inspiration of Poe. There are distinct similarities between the Tryst scene in Pelléas et Mélisande and Act II of Tristan und Isolde, just as this music-drama significantly influenced the composition of Rodrigue et Chimène. Both of these scenes in Pelléas et Mélisande and Tristan und Isolde begin with the female protagonist alone on stage, who is then joined by her ‘lover’. A love duet follows in each case, leading to a warning of imminent danger. Similarly, Maeterlinck’s libretto reveals the deep influence of Poe, and in fact has much in common with La Chute de la Maison Usher, especially with regards to symbolism and imagery. Arkel’s old castle with its stagnant water, for example, resembles the crumbling house of Usher. Rather than struggling with these influences as he had done in his two incomplete works, Debussy was able to combine them in Pelléas, providing a clue as to why he was able to finish this project.

The fact that Pelléas et Mélisande made it to the stage was no doubt also due to the point of his life in which it was composed. Certainly Debussy showed as much reluctance to let go of the work as he would with La Chute de la Maison Usher, and continued to refine the music right up until his death. The orchestration of Pelléas et Mélisande was left incomplete until after it was accepted by the Opéra-Comique, revealing a lack of certainty – either of his musical creation or of his willingness to part with the work. In a letter to Pierre Louÿs in 1898, he described how he was ‘continually fighting against silly and despicable impossibilities’, and how such feelings had led him to conclude ‘I hardly know where I am going if it is not towards suicide’. It was Louÿs’ words of support and friendship that would persuade him to continue with his work: ‘You must continue with [Pelléas] and you must get it performed, two matters from which you wish to be relieved, but which must represent everything for you’. Once he had finally completed the opera, Debussy described handing over the score as being like ‘the death of a loved one’. Perhaps also linked with this difficulty in sharing his operatic projects with the public is his reluctance to emerge from the fantasy world he had created in his score and face the real world. Here lies a possible explanation as to why Debussy allowed Pelléas et Mélisande to leave his grasp for the public stage. While undoubtedly finding a subject and libretto that suited his artistic outlook was an essential factor, the success of his finished opera was surely a result, at least partly, of the story of Roderick Usher. In La Chute de la Maison Usher, Debussy saw a new world he could escape to once he had returned from the world of Pelléas et Mélisande. As his life-long project, it not only gave him a space to shake off the artistic restraints that had been imposed on him earlier in his career during the composition of Rodrigue et Chimène, but also crucially it provided him with a place to shelter from his personal difficulties. Here we unearth perhaps the most poignant struggle that Debussy faced in his operatic career: the desires and fears that inspired him to begin with his operatic projects are the very same that would prevent so many of them from ever reaching the operatic stage.

Katharine Camiller is Associate Producer for Opera Holland Park