Ahead of the SSO’s Pelléas with Dutoit, Vincent Plush traces the work’s history and reception in this country.

The death of Claude Debussy in March 1918 was “a great loss to music lovers the world over,” reported the column Musical Notes in The Newsletter (7 September 1918). “Australians know very little of (his few works),” the anonymous writer went on, “though Pelléas et Mélisande has been performed here and appreciated by those who like the illusive rather than the boldly expressed in art.”

It is difficult to understand that statement. How could Debussy’s only opera have been performed in Australia barely 15 years after its premiere? This was at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in April 1902. The intervention of the First World War would have reduced that likelihood even further. There are other reports of various ‘arias’ having been performed in Australia, but these assertions are dubious too: Debussy famously refused to sanction performance of excerpts or orchestral arrangements of his opera. Do it all, or not at all, was his view.

Perhaps the columnist was referring to a production of the play on which the opera was based, Pelléas et Mélisande by the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949). But even that is hard to corroborate, or believe.

Perhaps the unknown writer was referring to Debussy’s L’Enfant prodigue which saw the 22-year-old composer being awarded the Prix de Rome. The Quinlan Opera Company, touring Australia in June 1912, gave several performances of this one-acter in Melbourne and Sydney as one half of a double-bill with Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel.

Another unknown writer (possibly the same one) lamented the absence of Pelléas in Quinlan’s season. “It is unfortunate that Mr Quinlan did not bring us Pelléas et Mélisande,” the anonymous columnist opined. “Then we would have had the combination of Maurice Maeterlinck and Claude Debussy.”

Pelléas et Mélisande makes a brief appearance in our music history in 1931 when it was reported that the Australian baritone John Brownlee had been engaged to sing the role of Pelléas at Covent Garden. “It is such an exacting part musically and histrionically [sic],” the Brisbane Courier announced. “It is a great compliment to be selected [and] the highest achievement of his career.”

Mary Gaden, Mélisande, DebussySoprano Mary Gaden, the first Mélisande

In June 1950, press advertisements bold announced “the first performance in Australia” of Debussy’s opera. There were to be six performances in the Main Hall of the Sydney Conservatorium, conducted and directed by the Con’s then-Director, Eugene Goossens, himself from a Belgian family background and well known for his espousal of French composition. The design was by William Constable (1906-1989), the noted stage and film designer. Among the cast were a few familiar names: Goossens had cast a professional singer and Con teacher Renée Goossens (no relation) as Mélisande, and, as Golaud, the baritone Ronal Jackson, onetime Head of the Conservatorium Opera School.

These performances created a great deal of interest throughout the country. “The difficulties of performance of Pelléas are prodigious,” opined Lindley Evans, the composer-pianist and Con staff member, who was also ‘Mr Melody Man’ on the ABC children’s radio programme The Argonauts which ran from 1939 to 1969. As the Con prepared for Pelléas, Evans noted “much ruffling of troubled brows [and] the occasional cuss-words among those taking part, who have no hesitation in proclaiming it to be the most troubled opera yet tackled.” If it matched up to the Con’s previous venture into “grand opera”, Verdi’s Falstaff, “it will be a feather in the cap for all concerned, from Goossens down to the lowliest member of the orchestra.”

Critics came from far and wide. A critic from The Argus drove 600 miles up from Melbourne “to experience probably the most beautiful of all French operas,” noting that it was “the only time to be staged in Australia and probably the last for some years to come.” He praised the orchestra which had drawn out “the ethereal beauty of Debussy’s orchestration,” due “exclusively to the absolute control” of Goossens, then 58 years of age and at the height of his conducting capacity and influence on Sydney’s music scene. O’Shaughnessy was less enthusiastic about the singers who “by and large, did not live up to expectations.” He found they remained “individual rather than roles”.

Not all critics were so enthusiastic. In The Sydney Herald Lindsey Browne criticised Goossens and his production harshly. “If the Conservatorium production had no richer value,” he wrote, “it did show that Debussy’s twilit masterpiece cannot even begin to exist unless its singers are supremely sensitive actors, directed by a régisseur who is artist, poet, practical technician, all in one. None of these demands was met.”

The following day, Browne’s volley was met with a salvo from the maestro in the Letters column of the paper. “Being responsible for choosing and bringing to performance the Conservatorium student operas,” he explained, “I stress that these productions, while serving the dual purpose of instruction and entertainment, do not lay claim (because of limitations of stage space and available talent) to Metropolitan, Paris Opera, Covent Garden, and Berlin Opera House standards.”

Eugene GoossensEugene Goossens

During some 35 years’ association with professional organisations in Britain and America, Goossens huffed, he had conducted performances “often inferior to many Conservatorium ones.” He resented the way in which the critic “not only applies super-Covent Garden standards to a student production, but revives the old accusation, so frequently levelled and just as often disproved, that Conservatorium opera is a tawdry, ill sung, inexpert bungle.” Browne had paid the orchestra grudging tribute, yet his opera orchestra in Chicago, Goossens asserted “never put half the subtlety into its playing than that displayed by those devoted Conservatorium players.”

In parenthesis, it might be mentioned that Goossens had been Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1931 until 1946, after which he came to Sydney to hold the unprecedented dual roles as Director of the Sydney Conservatorium and conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  Coincidentally, in late October this year, the CSO will give two gala performances of Pelléas et Mélisande to celebrate the inauguration of their refurbished Music Hall, a reconstruction that cost US$135m and some 16 months to achieve. These performances round off a three-year focus on Pelléas, which entailed performances of the incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play by Fauré and Sibelius, as well as the enormous orchestral tone poem by Schoenberg.

Addressing his Sydney critics, Goossens decried the “gratuitous arrogance about the critical reception of hitherto unperformed works in Sydnev, all of which prompts one to confine future offerings to performances of The Student Prince and Blossom Time.” He noted how some local critics heaped “undiluted praise in the presentation of hackneyed works by suburban groups (yet) the carping which bi-annually greets our efforts to present students and audiences with little known operatic masterpieces calls for some explanation.” And for his final thrust: “Shortcomings, yes,” he thundered, “but surely three-quarters of a fresh loaf in empty Sydney’s empty operatic larder is better than no bread at all.”

A day later, page two of the Herald conveyed Lindsey Browne’s rebuttal. Goossens’s complaints about his opera reviews, he retorted, were based on “a number of false assumptions.” He rejected the suggestion that “Conservatorium productions should be ‘let off’ on the grounds that they are ‘student work.” They would “carry more weight if so many well-known professional singers and orchestral players were not rung-in as ‘students.’ The suggestion that a Conservatorium of Music, as the centre of the city’s musical learning and culture (Mr Goossens promised to make it so), is entitled to the same leniencies shown towards a suburban music society of spare-time enthusiasts is palpably absurd.” Moreover, Browne snarled, “If Debussy laboured for ten years to write Pelléas, surely a Conservatorium Opera School could spare more than seven weeks for its preparation?” It had been reported that the production had been a financial failure. If so, Browne snarled, “it is good politics to blame the critics’ ‘injustice’ for a failure which was, of course, inherent in the original decision to stage the work. Not a ‘Covent Garden standard’ but elementary artistic sympathy ought to have made it clear that any effective production of Pelléas demands an assemblage of outstanding talents so numerous that Mr Goossens, despite his considerable powers and his ambitious imagination, could surely not hope to be all of them.”

Beyond that Australian premiere production at the Sydney Conservatorium in 1950, there is no further mention of Pelléas et Mélisande until a production of the Victorian State Opera in June 1977, designed by Robin Lovejoy and conducted by the late Richard Divall. Two decades later, it was produced by The Australian Opera. The current leadership of our flagship opera company seems to have little interest in mounting a new production, despite the advent of computer-created imagery and the like which could create the appropriate visual atmosphere for the work.

Given its comparatively small staging requirements – in terms of cast and settings – it is indeed surprising that Pelléas et Mélisande has not had a wider life in Australia. It is odd that it has not appeared again in conservatorium productions throughout the country, nor in specialist concert series like the former Proms of Gold series concerts which largely disappeared from when John Hopkins stepped aside as the ABC’s Federal Director of Music in the mid-1970s.

Now, in late June this year, Charles Dutoit will lead the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in three concert performances in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. The SSO’s three-hour presentation will be sung in French with English surtitles. Perhaps these concert performances will lead to a revival of interest in a masterwork of the operatic stage, long neglected in this country.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande June 23 – 28