A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 16: Pélleas et Mélisande

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Mary Garden as Mélisande
Mary Garden as Mélisande

Why has Debussy’s Mélisande become a mezzo-soprano role? Maybe David Mamet has given me the answer to this. The playwright and bomb-thrower tells us in his new book Theatre that actors are in almost every case better off without a director, their own instincts leading the way. Mélisande has been sounding lower and lower over the decades (and Pélleas, too, for he always follow her wherever she goes). Here are the explanations we get: the part is low (surely Debussy realized this, yet did not change it, as he did for a baritone Pélleas), the orchestras are larger, the halls are larger, and maybe mezzos just want to do it. I have now in my imagination the idea that a century of cynicism has altered the instincts of the finest singers of the role, and also its finest hearers. Mary Garden certainly, I’m almost certain, did not chirp. She was a soprano, she was a Scottish-American from Chicago, she was the first Mélisande. The only recordings we have of her are in atrocious sound (Debussy plays the piano. Click here to listen.), and seem to give the lie to the received opinion that Pélleas et Mélisande must be sung with a kind of modern music accuracy. In some phrases Miss Garden positively wallows, but she definitely sounds like a soprano. The second Mélisande, Maggie Teyte, who also coached the role with Debussy, was a chirper. The composer thought she had ice in her veins. We have decent recordings of Madame Teyte singing well in her 60s, and still chirping. (Click here to listen to an example from 1944.) Natalie Dessay, not exactly a chirper, but a high shimmering soprano has just essayed the part to mixed reviews. Beyond that mezzo-sopranos seem to own the role these days.  And not dulcet crooners—earth mother Mahler singers.

Okay, so the part is low. Look at the score. See how the composer clears the way for a light high voice to sing low in virtually every utterance.  The end of the fourth act being the only major exception. Just looking at it iconographically it would seem that Debussy wanted a high-sounding voice to sing low in her register, and he gets the orchestra out of the way. There is certainly no technical reason why the role cannot work perfectly well sung by a soprano. So what has happened? Why is Boris Godunov, technically the baritone role in Mussorgsky’s opera of the same name, now sung almost exclusively by bassos profundo? I think these operas, and particularly Pélleas have really become more sung, less spoken than when they were new. Just listen to Chaliapin sing Boris, a singer often negatively reviewed as having a baritone voice, not a bass voice, and try to find any phrase that he sings with an Italianate legato. Garden also was a legendary articulator of the text.  Performers sing what they hear. They and we seem to hear it more singingly.  The mezzo Mélisande sings the middle of the part, doesn’t nearly speak it because the tessitura is so low.  I have just heard a powerful and marvelous mezzo voice singing the part for the first time, and it made perfect sense. The role certainly has trepidation in it, but also an instinctual strength that masquerades as weakness. When I next hear a soprano Mélisande, I will hear her speak-singing as an interloper.  Our marvelous young singer, Vivien Shotwell, and one marvelous older singer, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, were richer singers of the part.  I remember how each sang “Tant mieux” at the end of the fourth act, like an ancient Sybil in Ms. Hunt’s performance, like the young and ancient Juliet leading her Romeo all the way in Vivien’s.

Our Mélisande has become a rich, dark sphinx, and maybe our ears are sadder.

Further reading

Debussy’s Mélisande: The Lives of Georgette Leblanc, Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte by Gillian Opstad (Boydell & Brewer, 392pp, £30)

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