MOMENT IN MET BROADCAST HISTORY
"Evanescent," "mystical," and "other-worldly" are adjectives often used to describe Pelléas et Mélisande. In many ways, this "mystical" view has become the standard emphasis in musical interpretations of Debussy’s operatic chef d’oeuvre. In contrast, the Texaco-Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of January 13, 1945, conducted by Emil Cooper, demonstrated a very different approach. Virgil Thomson, then critic for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote, "Mr. Cooper has seized the spirit of that music [Pelléas] rather better than anybody has done of recent decades in Paris, where the piece has gone slow, stiff and much too loud. It has become in France a sort of sacred cow that everybody is afraid of. Mr. Cooper, by treating her as if she were young and passionate, has made her behave like a lamb…Pelléas et Mélisande is no Italian melodrama, but neither is there anything whatsoever mystical about it."
The cast for the radio broadcast was extraordinary: Martial Singher as Pelléas, Bidù Sayão as Mélisande, Margaret Harshaw as Geneviève, Lawrence Tibbett as Golaud, and Alexander Kipnis as Arkel. New York Times critic Olin Downes, also noting the "warm emotional current and high dramatic profile" of the performance, wrote, "an absence of tradition also characterizes the charming and girlish Mélisande of Miss Sayão, who sings the music with a fine articulation and freshness of tone." Martial Singher, who had fled Nazi-occupied France and made his Met debut only a little over a year before this broadcast, gallantly credited his stage partner as well. "After my death scene, we had ten curtain calls. So much of this was due to Bidù Sayão’s passionate Mélisande – she is one of my absolute favorites." A leading baritone in Paris before the war, Singher had sung roles like Amfortas, the Dutchman, and Iago there. But his clear French diction, and elegant musical style made him the obvious choice for the much lighter role of Pelléas at the Met. "Martial Singher has already earned the distinction of being an outstanding Pelléas. In intensity, in style and in diction, this is a performance to remember," wrote Miles Kastendieck in the Brooklyn Eagle.
Aside from the title roles the other major parts were confided to singers at home in more dramatic repertory. Unlike Singher and Sayão, none were comfortable with the French language. Nevertheless each had a colorful, distinctive voice, with a flair for drama that fit well into Cooper’s passionate conception.
Pelléas et Mélisande receives its twelfth radio broadcast live from the Met stage on April 8, 2000, thanks to the generosity of Texaco, sponsor of the Met broadcasts for the past 60 seasons. – Peter Clark