[Met Performance] CID:128290
Pelléas et Mélisande {33} Metropolitan Opera House: 03/7/1940.

(Debut: Georges Cathelat

Metropolitan Opera House
March 7, 1940


Pelléas.................Georges Cathelat [Debut]
Mélisande...............Helen Jepson
Golaud..................John Brownlee
Arkel...................Alexander Kipnis
Geneviève...............Doris Doe
Yniold..................Natalie Bodanya
Physician...............Nicola Moscona

Conductor...............Erich Leinsdorf

Director................Désiré Defrère
Set designer............Joseph Urban
Costume designer........Gretel Urban

Pelléas et Mélisande received two performances this season.

Review of Oscar Thompson in Musical America

'Pelléas et Mélisande' Restored After Five Years

Debussy's Music Drama Has Revival at Metropolitan - Georges Cathelat Comes from France for Performances - Jepson, Doe, Brownlee, Kipnis, Bodanya and Moscona in Cast - Leinsdorf Conducts

After five years, Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande" was restored to the boards at the Metropolitan on the evening of Thursday, March 7, in the next to last week of the season, and accorded its only repetition on the following Wednesday night. The last previous performance was that of March 20. I935, when the chief parts were sung by Edward Johnson, Lucrezia Bori, Ezio Pinza and Leon Rothier, with Louis Hasselmans conducting.For Mr. Cathelat, a young French tenor imported especially for the revival (it was necessary to obtain his release from the French army) this was an American debut. His personal success was the most positive and clear-cut that can be credited to any of the stage participants.

The audience, which greeted the return of this once experimental and recherché work and which feasted its optics on Joseph Urban's still sumptuous sets, was probably the largest ever assembled for "Pelléas" at this house. Possibly it was also the most enthusiastic. That there should be standees in such numbers at an epicure's opera would appear to indicate one of two things. Either America's operatic public has caught up with Debussy; or absence and inaccessibleness have been precisely what was needed to whet the appetite for this particularly choice morsel of the operatic fare.

Though fifteen years have elapsed since it was designed, the Metropolitan's production of "Pelléas" remains among its most beautiful. If first mention is made of the visual rather than the aural aspects of the revival, that is in accord with the relative appeal of the mountings as compared to the musical performance. The latter should be conceded work-a-day virtues of all order to be associated with earnest effort and conscientious direction, the forces controlled being the best, or nearly the best, at the company's command. In the new cast was no singer who had been identified with any previous performance of "Pelléas" at the Metropolitan, though Mr. Pinza was within call.

Success for French Tenor

There was but one French singer in the group, Mr. Cathelat. Mélisande was an American, as was Genevieve. Golaud was sung by an Australian, Arkel by a Russian. The Physician was a Greek. Yniold, a Russian-American. The conductor was Austrian-born and, so far as the Metropolitan was concerned, had been identified solely with German opera, though he had conducted "Pelléas" in San Francisco.

The stage honors were clearly Mr. Cathelat's. His was a young, a very young, Pélleas; trim, good looking, shapely of limb, and sufficiently romantic of bearing, at first excessively cautious of movement and later, rather surprisingly, precipitous. In the characterization was more than a touch of shyness and until the final scene it lacked any very compelling suggestion of inner fire or spirit. But this did not defeat the singer as an actor. What did handicap the actor as a singer was his lack of climactic tones for his admirably acted final scene. When Pelléas cried out to Mélisande for her lips, as Golaud came up from behind to slay him, his fragile voice gave little help. But it was generally of attractive quality - a light French timbre - and it was both supple and expressive in the greater part of the undulous Debussyan dialogue. One would hesitate to predict how the voice would stand up in even the Roméo sort of lyric singing.

The Other Principals

Of the non French singers, Mr. Brownlee, by virtue of his extensive experience in opera in Paris, was the one who most nearly approached Mr. Cathelat in the delivery of his sung lines in the French manner. One could have wished that his often admirable Goland could have possessed a little more of iron, a little less of nervous gesture. It was most convincing in the distraught final scene; but the shattered Goland of that scene is a more absorbing personage if he has contrived to communicate something of ruggedness as well as sternness before the crash comes.

Miss Jepson's Mélisande was good to look upon and well sung, as straight singing goes; indeed, the tower song was as musical in its sound as this reviewer has ever known it to be. But the imagination was left cold and unruffled by the impersonation. There was no escaping the conclusion that Mélisande is not her role. There was little hint of mystery, of strangeness, of otherworldliness, of prescience or even of naiveté in this embodiment.

Miss Doe may have erred on the side of under-emphasis in the reading of the letter that is Geneviève's chief concern. But hers was a small portrait well drawn and in the scene before the castle - that of the strangely disturbing distant choiring of the sailors - distinctly well sung. Miss Bodanya's Yniold met the requirements.

Mr. Kipnis, so admirable in his recent Wagnerian appearances, was over-dramatic and otherwise not quite in the spirit of the wise old Arkel. There was too ready a thought of Gurnemanz. And there is a mellower, more humanly persuasive way of treating that nobly pathetic phrase, "Were I God, I would pity the hearts of men," than Mr. Kipnis's proclamatory way. No fault need be found with Mr. Moscona's Physician.

Mr. Leinsdorf had raised the floor of the orchestra pit, which was precisely what should have been done. Debussy wanted his orchestra heard. If on this occasion the instrumental tone was too heavy, that was something of mistaken balances or lack of discretion or sensitivity in the playing. There were square corners where there should have been a wave-like undulation. Positive themes were made of evanescent bits of atmosphere. This was too German an approach to an essentially and peculiarly French score. But much of the playing was beautiful in effect.

The time has come when prostrations and incense burnings are no more necessary for Debussy than for Wagner. "Pelléas et Mélisande" can be accepted today as one of the most profoundly human of stage compositions and one of the most essentially musical. It was not so easy to attribute those qualities to it It had its memorable first American performance at the Manhattan Opera House in 1908, six years after the Paris premiere. But the water that has flowed under the bridge since then has altered the entire perspective.

In this connection it can scarcely be said that "Pelléas" has been flagrantly neglected, much as some eager spirits would how have welcomed additional hearings. Aside from the Hammerstein performances at the Manhattan and those given by the visiting Chicago Opera Company, the Metropolitan has done better by the Maeterlinck-Debussy "drama of the shadows" than by sundry
other works internationally regarded as of continuing appeal. As an instance, the immortal Mozart opera buffo revived at the Metropolitan this year, "Le Nozze di Figaro," had figured in but nine seasons, with a total of twenty-seven performances, prior to its current release from limbo, whereas ""Pelléas et Mélisande," though many years later in entering the repertory, had been heard in eleven seasons, with a total of twenty-nine representations. It is noteworthy that those eleven seasons were consecutive. There was no break in the record until it was no longer feasible for Edward Johnson to sing opposite Lucrezia Bori in additional performances.

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