Júlia Váradi: What does the forest symbolize in the story of Pelléas and Mélisande?
Iván Fischer: The forest is widely regarded as a symbol of the human soul: dark, impenetrable, dangerous, and mysterious. The fateful story of the isolated family takes place in just a few glades or towers. The locations of the scenes emerge from the orchestra-forest, much like the vocal parts of the score’s orchestral interludes.
JV: As a director, how did you navigate the backstories of the characters in this intricate and enigmatic plot?
IF: We know very little about the characters. Barely anything at all. Even the husband, Golaud, never learns where Mélisande escaped from, who harmed her, or why she wants to renounce her crown. And although Pélleas' sick father recovers in the end, he never appears on stage. The sheep fail to find the way home but we never learn what happens to them. The authors provide few clues, but they paint an extremely nuanced picture of the characters' moods and emotions. We empathize with Golaud's passionate jealousy, Pelléas and Mélisande's poetic love, their dreamlike floating, and finally the pastel-colored, misty gentleness with which King Arkel wisely accepts that the reins are slipping out of his hands.
JV: How did you achieve this degree of closeness between the romantic story and Debussy's moving melodies?
IF: The orchestra and the forest or park surrounding the towers are one and the same. The music emanates from the shade of the trees, surrounding the characters. With time, one gets used to this darkness, Geneviève reassures the young wife, newly arrived with a bouquet of flowers, who finds her new home somber. From the stormy sea, only a few lighthouse beams flicker. And so the woodwind runs flare up from the fundamentally dark, misty soundscape, from the mournful chords of the bassoons and horns.
JV: It seems that one of the most important characters for the director is the aged King Arkel. Why?
IF: No, there are no more important or less important characters; even the little boy is significant as he's the one that sees the lost and crying sheep. King Arkel might be about 90 years old. He's almost completely blind but he rules over the family, without a shadow of a doubt. To some extent he even abuses this power when he explains to the young Mélisande how much elderly men approaching death crave the touch and closeness of young women. 'Art thou afraid of my old lips?', he urges, not understanding that Mélisande recoils from everyone's touch. King Arkel wants to force Golaud into a marriage of convenience and later forbids Pelléas to visit his dying friend. But the old king's power is weakening, and he becomes resigned and benevolent. If something goes wrong, he understands. He accepts that instead of Princess Ursula, Golaud chooses Mélisande, whom he had found in the forest. In the end he does not condemn anything, not even fratricide.
JV: Mélisande is the embodiment of uncertainty, maybe even a master of deception. Am I right?
IF: In her case it is instinctual, innocent, almost naive. “No; I never lie; I lie but to thy brother…”, she proclaims with charming candor. We are never certain what truth means to Mélisande, as she only gives vague answers. On her deathbed, when she doesn't even remember that Pelléas was killed, nor that she gave birth to a child afterward, it seems that Mélisande has finally detached from reality. She seems almost happy; only the weather catches her interest.
JV: What exactly makes Pelléas so attractive to Mélisande?
IF: She senses some similarity between them. We've mentioned the weather: even that makes them connect immediately. Objects, the atmosphere of the environment, the weather affect them more than the people around them. They keep talking about the mist descending onto the sea, the storm, the heat, the cold, the shadows. They finally have someone to share these with. They are kindred spirits: they are the same, like two peas in a pod.
JV: Wagner is often mentioned when the subject turns to Debussy. Are they polar opposites, or do the two great spirits share some similarities?
IF: Many analysts see Debussy as an anti-Wagner, but there are striking similarities between them. The singers declaim in a speech-like manner while the orchestra paints the emotional processes. Our senses are affected by the chords, the orchestration, and the unique orchestral sound, rather than the melodies of the singers. The singers are essentially singing actors who deliver the entire Maeterlinck script by perfectly following the fast rhythm of the French language. In this aspect, the styles of Wagner and Debussy are very close. Even in terms of content, the story of Pelléas and Mélisande bears obvious similarities to the fateful, fatal love of Tristan and Isolde.
JV: So what is the essential difference between the two?
IF: Their language is extremely different. Instead of Wagner's monumental orchestra, Debussy often only uses a few instruments to create the colors. And while Wagner clarifies and explains everything in great detail, Debussy often leaves the audience in doubt. We read, study, and understand Wagner. But with Debussy we have no chance: he only suggests and alludes. Like a lightly outlined musical pastel painting.