Monday, 6 July 2009

Georgette, Mary and Maggie

Anyone who missed BBC Radio 3 Music Matters' feature on Debussy's Mélisande last Saturday can listen to it on the BBC website or download the programme as a podcast. Here, author Gillian Opstad describes how she became fascinated by the opera and the three women involved in its early years:

I cannot remember a time when I did not love the music of Debussy. My first exposure to Pelléas et Mélisande was the aesthetically pleasing boxed set of the opera produced in 1957 by La Voix de son Maître, conducted by Cluytens with Victoria de los Angeles as Mélisande. The delicate Vuillard painting of Pelléas and Mélisande by the well (from the foyer of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées) on the front cover of the booklet perfectly conveyed the atmosphere of the music contained on those three LPs. At that time I hardly cared about the story. My response as a teenager was a purely emotional one to the music, which somehow seemed to encapsulate the essence of ‘Frenchness’. The introductory notes of Vuillermoz mentioned the quarrel between Maeterlinck and Debussy brought about by Debussy’s ‘refusal’ to allow Georgette Leblanc to sing the role of Mélisande and referred to the ‘irremplaçable Mary Garden’, but it was not until many years later, listening to a CD of Maggie Teyte, that I started to wonder why the two first Mélisandes were British, and how the second, the daughter of a Wolverhampton publican, came to sing the role.

I obtained copies of the autobiographies of Georgette, Mary and Maggie. Then, determined to research the background to the opera objectively, I approached it in the manner of detective work, rather than resorting immediately to secondary sources. Before visiting libraries and archives I collected the reminiscences of Debussy’s friends and performers during my visits to secondhand bookshops in Paris (a fascinating way of exploring the city), and this certainly brought him and his contemporaries to life as did the huge volume of Debussy’s correspondence collected and edited by Lesure and Herlin which is the most essential key to the composer’s life and personality and makes completely absorbing reading. It was strange how things fell into my hands once I started looking. In a shop selling old journals and newspapers, I headed for two boxes stacked full of old theatre programmes. I put my hand randomly into the middle of one and the first thing I pulled out was the original 1908 programme of Maggie Teyte’s first Mélisande. I was not so lucky with Georgette Leblanc here. Having stared with delight at the 1899 edition of the journal Le Théâtre with the gloriously colourful picture of her as Carmen on the front, I left it on a table, but on returning to pick it up it had disappeared. The shopowner and I looked everywhere, but someone – another fan of Georgette? - must have taken it! In other shops the discoveries of authors’ signatures inside Sous les étoiles by Lugné-Poë and books on Debussy by Inghelbrecht, Pasteur Vallery-Radot, Maurice Dumesnil and Lesure brought me nearer to them and their subject matter.

After reading existing biographies of my three subjects in order to compare these with their autobiographies, I was still left with a feeling of dissatisfaction about Maggie Teyte, and decided to examine her genealogy. This was not an easy task, although obviously made simpler today with access to some of the records on computer. How complicated her background and early life turned out to be, one she was anxious to expunge from her memory.

Maggie’s tale of her role in the transition period at the Opéra-Comique between Mary Garden and Marguerite Carré demonstrated the highly-charged atmosphere at the opera house and caused me to consider whether the derogatory remarks made by all and sundry about Maeterlinck’s mistress, Georgette Leblanc, were fully justified. I was therefore delighted when I was granted access to her memoirs and memorabilia in the Archives et Musée de la Littérature in Brussels. Her larger than life character shines out from her handwriting which covers just about everything she could lay hands on. One could sense that her propensity for overacting would influence her singing style. Her admirers, from journalists to composers, certainly existed and wrote of their appreciation. Her detractors were often critics disappointed at her influence on the writings of Maurice Maeterlinck, believing it was she who had weaned him away from mysterious Symbolism to a more prosaic stronger image of womanhood. The story of her relationship with Maeterlinck, his initial adoration of her, the disparate nature of their characters, and his eventual marriage to a woman many years his junior became compulsive research. Her obsessive desire to perform Mélisande was touching and to read her account of the play she put on in the Abbey of St-Wandrille showed a passion both for the work and for the romantic environment that she and Maeterinck inhabited. Her life was no less dramatic after their break-up, and the fidelity of the two women with whom she ended her life was moving.

Mary Garden’s personal memorabilia, her notebooks and albums with their cursory remarks and so many mementos of performances demonstrate the closeness to her family of a personality who gloried in fame, yet managed to keep concealed private details of her life – even her date of birth! She would have laughed at my experience when researching her rehearsal schedules, costumes and reviews, held at the Bibliothèque de l’Opéra in Paris, one of my prearranged days coinciding with that most Parisian of activities, a strike. Having obtained access with difficulty, getting out at closing time proved even more of a problem. I ended up descending Garnier’s grand staircase, briefcase in hand, between two lines of ladies dressed in the colourful national costume of South Korea, who bowed graciously as I passed.

The extraordinarily evocative power of the combination of words and music in Pelléas et Mélisande brought tears to the eyes of the opera’s first prospective soloists when Debussy sang all the parts, accompanying himself at the piano. Simply succumbing to emotion, however, is to ignore the immense skill of the tight structure of the score. This skill is so great, that as with many things in life, the greater the effort that has gone into the making of a masterpiece, the simpler it appears. Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte followed Debussy’s instructions and combined to perfection the external apparent simplicity of the vocal part with the complexity of character lying beneath the surface. Georgette Leblanc longed for the opportunity to do the same, but had to wait for her turn in America. The accounts of all three of their encounters with Debussy reveal much about their own characters as well as that of the composer.

Debussy's Mélisande by Gillian Opstad is available now from all good booksellers.

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