"What must it have been like," asks Gillian Opstad in a new book on Debussy's opera, "to witness the composition of one of the seminal musical works of the twentieth century...to be in the same room as the composer as he played with sounds, changed harmonies as you sang, as you listened to chords you had never heard before and tried to make sense of a vocal line which was more like natural speech than song?" In Debussy's Mélisande, just published by the Boydell Press, Opstad looks at the colourful lives of three singers who made the role their own. Here is a short extract from the opening pages of the book:
An ideal Mélisande? Debussy certainly believed the first two singers to perform the role fulfilled his ideal, yet neither of them was the woman Maurice Maeterlinck had in mind. The part meant so much to these women that Mélisande became a pivotal role referred to throughout their lives. They were the interpreters of the role. Its creators were men, undoubtedly socially and artistically more powerful and influential in this environment: author, composer, director, conductor. Without them the women could never have achieved such fame. This is the inescapable truth in the lives of Georgette Leblanc, Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte. But what women! The toughness of the life of a female opera singer, her inferior position in hierarchical society at the turn of the nineteenth century, meant that they had to be resilient and to have unshakeable belief in themselves. And then there is a dichotomy. Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande is regarded as quintessentially French, yet the two first great Mélisandes came from Britain. Both these women were determined, characterful personalities, far removed from Maeterlinck’s childlike creation.
Larger than life roles in a larger than life art form must inevitably be won by characters with a certain lack of compromise, and the willpower to succeed. To follow their story is to realise that women who were building their careers over a hundred years ago were just as capable as those of today of taking charge of their own lives, demanding attention to get their way, and that long before the age of television and mass communications, the press could be manipulated by ‘celebrities’, in an age when such a term hardly existed. The lives of the women who created Mélisande demonstrate the hardships and sacrifices such dedicated professionals had to make to keep in the public eye. Arguments and intrigues surrounding the casting of the role evoke the atmosphere of the opera house of the era. The men needed the women to bring to life the images filling their imaginations yet the praise of these men is hard earned. How damning can be their comments. Georgette Leblanc in particular suffered from their dismissive attitude. Not just contemporaries, but even later writers who could not have heard her, insist on her lack of talent. In La Passion de Claude Debussy, Dietschy claimed that Georgette was indirectly associated with the failure of Maeterlinck’s play in 1893. Yet she had not even met the author at the time of its first performance. He also finds it ‘odd’ that the Chanson de Mélisande set to music by Gabriel Fabre was dedicated to her, yet she sang this work with Fabre himself accompanying her many times. His assumption appears to be that Georgette claimed the role of Mélisande passionately as though she foresaw the dazzling success of the opera, implying that this was merely to further her own ends. Lockspeiser, in his two volume biography of Debussy dismisses Georgette with the claim that she ‘had a wretched reputation as a singer’ even though she received praise from both professionals and amateur music lovers on many occasions.
Recordings of Georgette Leblanc are very rare and, of course, the industry was in its infancy when both she and Mary Garden recorded songs so it is difficult to judge the true quality of their voices. A recent issue on CD brings us evidence of Georgette’s voice as recorded by Gramophone and Typewriter Limited in Paris in 1903, just one year after the première of Debussy’s opera, when she was thirty four. Here she is accompanied at the piano by Jules Massenet in the aria Pendant un an je fus ta femme from his opera Sapho. Massenet’s playing is so discreet that he can barely be heard at all in the background, but despite the inevitable hiss, Georgette’s voice is distinct. From descriptions of her manner, one might expect an overtly dramatic interpretation, yet whilst this aria is sung with feeling and a range of dynamics, the expression is not exaggerated. There is some vibrato, wider than Mary Garden’s, but not excessive, some scooping up to the high notes, these – particularly the top A on the last syllable of ‘ton coeur s’ouvrira’ – being clear, if a little thin. The words are well projected but not overenunciated. The same set of two CDs contains recordings of Mary Garden accompanied by Debussy, so a direct, although necessarily very limited comparison can be made of the two voices at about this time. On the basis of this brief extract, even if her rival has a purer, more lucid voice, Georgette Leblanc’s performance here does not appear to merit the derogatory criticisms made of her vocally.