Thursday, November 26, 2009
Debussy’s Homage to Poe, With the Blanks Filled In
What should be done with the unfinished works left behind by master composers at their deaths? This question has long dogged musicians and scholars of later eras, and the debate goes on. Maybe the proper way to respect the masters is to leave their incomplete scores alone. How can we presume to know what an ingenious composer might have intended?
On the other hand, some of these scores are tantalizingly close to being performable. When there are enough sketches, composers and scholars have often tried to fill in the gaps and produce a playable version of a piece. The composer Friedrich Cerha’s completed Act III of Berg’s “Lulu,” which Berg died before finishing and orchestrating, has been embraced by many prominent musicians, including James Levine, who will again conduct the three-act “Lulu” at the Metropolitan Opera in May.
My choice for the most frustrating case of an unfinished work by a master composer is Debussy’s opera “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Debussy’s libretto, adapted from Baudelaire’s translation of the Poe short story, survives incomplete, and the musical score exists only in meager sketches of certain scenes for piano. There are scant indications of basics like tempo and dynamics.
There is simply not enough of Debussy’s “Usher” to work from, and few have tried to finish it. None of which stopped Opéra Français de New York, in partnership with the French Institute Alliance Française, from presenting what was promoted as the American premiere of “a rare double bill of two works by Debussy” last weekend at Florence Gould Hall.
The 60-minute multimedia production, “Debussy and Poe: The Devil in the Belfry & The Fall of the House of Usher,” which I saw on Saturday, included not just performances of scenes from “Usher,” based on Debussy’s sketches, but also spoken dialogue and fragments of music (played on piano) from another, even less complete Debussy opera based on Poe, “The Devil in the Belfry.” Without enough of Debussy’s music, even in sketch form, to fill out an hour, “Debussy and Poe” was padded with four songs and a piano prelude by Debussy.
Still, on its own terms, “Debussy and Poe,” created by the directors Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil and the music director and pianist Jeff Cohen, was a dark, moody and intriguing theatrical amalgam, performed by a small cast accompanied by Mr. Cohen. A quasi-abstract set designed by Rick Martin evoked a spooky library at the Usher house.
For those of us who revere Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” first performed in Paris in 1902 after a nearly 10-year gestation, it is exasperating to have only that unorthodox and mesmerizing Debussy opera. Refined, intellectually cagey and ahead of his time in his comprehension of the unconscious, Debussy was a master of indirection, veiled emotions and psychological subtext. To him, most of what passed for opera was dramatically obvious and musically crude, with too much action and too predominant a role for music.
In Maeterlinck’s haunting “Pelléas et Mélisande,” a landmark play of the Symbolist movement, Debussy found a literary work that inspired him to a new kind of opera. Little happens onstage as the story, set in a vaguely medieval setting, unfolds. Mélisande, a secretive, fragile young woman lost in the forest, is found weeping by Golaud, a sullen widower, a grandson of a king. Golaud takes Mélisande home and marries her, only to see his mysterious wife and his impetuous, handsome younger brother, Pelléas, fall hopelessly, and fatally, in love.
The characters’ inner turbulence, the real story, is conveyed through Debussy’s sensual orchestral music. With its wayward harmonic language, milky colorings, avoidance of dramatic flourishes and spacious pacing, Debussy’s music illuminates the unconscious in ways that spoken dramas and more conventional operas can hardly match.
In Poe’s “Usher,” Debussy felt he had found another source suited to exploring the unconscious and the macabre. Strangely bonded and sickly siblings, Roderick and Madeline Usher, live reclusively in the family mansion, a house that they come to believe is almost alive and bent on their destruction.
Debussy worked intermittently on “Usher” for 10 years. In 1908 Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the enterprising director of the Met, secured the rights to present “The Devil in the Belfry” and “Usher” as a double bill of one-act operas. Debussy cautioned Gatti-Casazza not to get his hopes up, saying, “I am a lazy composer” who sometimes “requires weeks to decide on one harmonious chord over another.” Nothing came of the project. Debussy died in 1918.
During “Debussy and Poe” it was impossible to know how closely the music was drawn from Debussy’s sketches. The production began with the sturdy baritone Michael Chioldi, in spectral pale-faced makeup, singing an intensely subdued Debussy song, “Le Son du Cor S’Afflige” (“The Sound of the Horn Wails”). Then, as Mr. Cohen played fleeting piano sketches from “The Devil in the Belfry,” two young and attractive singers, the baritone Phillip Addis and the soprano Ariadne Greif, as the Usher siblings, spoke dialogue from “The Devil in the Belfry,” looking like children hiding in the corner of the house library, using flashlights to read a forbidden text.
This episode segued into the first two scenes of “Usher,” accompanied by piano, in which Mr. Addis and Ms. Greif were joined by Mr. Chioldi, playing a controlling family physician; David McFerrin, a baritone, as Roderick’s concerned friend; and Alexander Blaise, an actor, playing another friend. As the work progressed, the other Debussy songs and a piano prelude, “Des Pas sur la Neige” (“Footprints in the Snow”), lent substance and connective music to the sketchy work, which concluded with the final scene of “Usher” and Madeline’s death.
In some ways “Debussy and Poe” was a tease, a dramatic patchwork of their work. I was willing to go along and accept it as a mix of sources and speculation. Still, I left wondering what might have been.
Posted by Chris Mansel at 2:09 AM