I was back at the Coliseum on 3 April 2000 for the ENO’s performance of Pelleas and Melisande by Claude Debussy, conducted by Paul Daniel. The production was created by Opera North in 1995 by the team of Paul Daniel, Richard Jones and Antony McDonald. “ENO is grateful to Opera North for agreeing to its adaptation and development for the Coliseum prior to its revival in Leeds.”

Debussy used unusual harmonies in his music such as consecutive 4th and 5th (not use in what today would by called “politically correct“ musical grammar!) and the general public did not understand his music. However, this changed in 1900 when his three orchestral nocturnes were performed and in 1902 his first performance of Pelleas and Melisande (his only opera) caused a sensation) with Mary Garden singing the role of Melisande. This immediately placed him in the front rank of French composers. Romain Roland wrote that P&M was one of the three or four leading achievements in the history of French music. This later earned him the Legion of Honour.

Debussy said “ I try and move the listener through the simplicity of the vocal line, through the discretion of the orchestra; I detest the brutal effects so greatly prized by my predecessors.” P&M is a setting of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, set in a landscape of forests, gloomy towers and dark wells.

At the start of the opera Melisande is found weeping by Golaud who is lost whilst hunting in the forest. Melisande is also lost. He persuades her to run a way with him and later marries her. But Melisande (not too bright educationally!!!) is attracted by Golaud’s half-brother Pelleas and Golaud becomes extremely jealous, even using his son by a former marriage to spy on the couple - Yniold, played by David Wigram just 13 years old. Finally Pelleau discovers them embracing by a fountain where they have met for a last farewell and Golaud kills Pelleas with his sword. Melisande bears a child and lies dying. Golaud begs her forgiveness.

Pelleas was performed by Garry Magee. Melisande by Joan Rodgers (in real life wife of Paul Daniel) sung with heart stopping beauty. She managed to look both sexy and ethereal. Golaud sung by Robert Hayward, who performed the role with a great physical presence. In fact the roles were magically-sung by all participants. The opera is full of horrific images, the claustrophobic nature of the castle with its tiny rooms, the atmospheric darkness and the final image of pity. Who can forget Genevive (Rebecca de Pont Davies) who tries to shake her dead son back into life or Golaud’s portrayal of human degradation almost too painful to witness?

The music was later taken up by Faure who in 1898 wrote the incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play; also by Sibelius in 1905 and a symphonic poem was written by Schonberg in 1903: imitation her very much a sign of success!

Debussy visited London twice in 1908 and 1909. He was also very fond of Eastbourne and stayed at the town’s Grand Hotel from 24 July to the end of September 1905 where he put the finishing touches to La Mer and worked on images. Writing to a friend he said: “The sea displays herself with a strictly British correctness” and said he found Eastbourne “a pleasant, even charming spot, a lovely place to cultivate one’s egotism“. He was pleased by the lack of noise as “there were no musicians discussing painting and no painters discussing music. He saw only one person who was poor although Debussy through “he looked pretty comfortably off… they must hide the poor during the holiday season”.

By the end of August he was suffering form neuralgia and was losing his taste for Eastbourne. The town now seemed ‘silly’. “I shall have to leave,” he said, “because there were too many draughts and too much music”. He took many photographs of the sea from his balcony at the Grand Hotel. He spent part of the time there with Emma Bardac whom he later married, this happy event they recorded in the hotel’s quest-book. He also wrote Reflections in the Water inspired by the reflections of the sun and clouds in a fountain and ornamental pool in Devonshire Park.

He further said of Eastbourne: “Here I am again with my old friend the sea, always beautiful. It is truly the one thing in Nature that puts you in your place. Only we do not sufficiently respect the sea; to wet in it bodies deformed by daily life should not be allowed; these arms and legs which move in ridiculous rhythms - it is enough to make the fish weep. There should be only Sirens in the sea.” So I feel Eastbourne must have also inspired him as regards La Mer.

Interestingly there is another version of Pelleas and Melisande being performed in London at the same time as the ENO’s version. In the London Borough of Ealing, more than 150 young people from three schools are working with artists from the Baylis (it was Lilian Baylis who founded the Old Vic). Programme - ENO’s education, community and outreach team – to develop and stage their own version of the opera. A partnership between the Baylis Programme and Glaxo Wellcome (the international pharmaceutical group) has enabled this project to take place close to the company’s headquarters in Greenford. GlaxoWellcome’s support for the Pelleas and Melisande project demonstrates its commitment to making the arts accessible to young people. The project will also encourage young people to consider in making careers in all aspects of the performing arts and, finally, all participants have the chance to see a performance of the opera at the Coliseum.


Verinha Ottoni.


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