excerpt from 'Themes and Conclusions' pp. 175-177 (714 words)

excerpt from 'Themes and Conclusions' pp. 175-177 (714 words)

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Themes and Conclusions

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have been listening to the new recording of Pelléas. But the performance is disappointing and will no doubt increase the demand for the old Ansermet album. A non-French-speaking cast imposes too great a handicap, Pelléas being the unique opera in which diction is a decisive element. The diction, here at least, affects not only colour but pitch and rhythm. And while the performance is stylistically questionable in other ways – it over-accents and over-articulates (the dotted notes in the Interlude between the first two scenes of Act Two are too short and too bouncy); substitutes forte for pianissimo (cf., the winds at 35, Act Two); etc.- the singers are the main problem. The brat Yniold is the only one wholly free of a pitch-blurring vibrato, but his performance- that pulling ‘petit père’ , and whining ‘oh, oh’ – is unbearable in other ways. Besides that, the accents and mispronunciations- Mélisande’s ‘un’ and ‘une’ are indistinguishably masculine; Goulaud’s ‘vous’ rhymes too perfectly with the word used to represent the vocalizing of cows in children’s books; etc. etc. – attract too much attention to the words. And what words! How could Debussy, the friend of Mallarmé, stomach Maeterlinck, let alone underline some of his most irritating mannerisms? Those explotives and short phrases, for instance – ‘oui, oui’, ‘louin, louin’, ‘tous, tous’ ‘où est-il, où est-il’, ‘la verité, la verité', 'ne me touchez pas, nem touchez pas'- which everyone reiterates as if it were a nervous tic common to the region and the time. Debussy makes the tic all the worse by separating the words with evenly-measured rests. Thus ‘Oh’ [rest,rest] ‘Oh’, must occur a dozen times even before Mélisande drops her ring - and with it her second 'Oh', a loss that bothers the by-now conditioned listener more than that of the heroine’s jewelry. / Of the two inexactenesses of the singers, in rhythm and intonation, the former is the more surprising. Not that exactness is all; but suppleness comes after, not before, fidelity to the written rhythmic values, and each of Debussy’s distinctions does its bit. Yet the singers do not always observe them. For example, more often than not the duration of the upbeat, or first note of a phrase, is doubled. Thus, choosing at random, Pelléas’s 'mais il y a longtemps’ (beginning of Scene Two, Act Three) is set to five sixteenths but sung to an eighth and four sixteenths, nor is the emendation desirable. The singers’ rhythms are slack not only in isolation, however, and so far as their own parts are concerned, but also in conjunction, or lack of conjunction, with the orchestra. This is no great matter in a récit punctuated very simply by chords, but when the rhythms are intricate, as in Genevivéve’s music (cf., Act One, Scene Three, measure four) the result is a long way from any kind of clarté. / But enough. What beautiful things the score contains! I limit my judgment to the music though, no longer being able to ‘see’ the work as an opera. And my impression of the musical whole is of a decline in effectiveness after the ‘Hair’ scene, when the quiet gloom of the earlier acts is dissipated by Golaud’s melodramatics. Moreover, certain moments in the later scenes seem to me less than perfectly calculated- the musically perfunctory Fourth Act curtain, for one – but, then, the idiom itself, like a drug, wears off with time. Is it a too-confining one for an opera of this length? For though it ranges from Wagner- without, however, anything like Wagner’s range- all the way down to Petrushka (the bassoons and clarinets in seconds in the Interlude to the second scene of Act Two), the later scenes are musically claustrophobic. Simplicity and restraint turn into limitation and constraint, beautiful monotony into just plain monotony. In fact, the opera is too long by the Fifth Act, though the death (puerperal fever? ennui?) is one of its most beautiful events.

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excerpt from 'Themes and Conclusions' pp. 175-177 (714 words)


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