Major Operas | Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy | Turn of the Century

Pelléas survives because it challenges its interpreters to peel away layers and discover new depths. Its story can be written on the back of a postage stamp: brother marries girl; other brother falls in love with her; brother kills brother; girl dies. But of what? Her wound would not have killed a sparrow, we are told. It is the question marks in Maeterlinck’s play – and this is a play not a libretto – which are so striking in this piece.

Several performance traditions have emerged. Is it a love story in which we sympathize with the eponymous couple: a love too great for the world? Or are there deeper scenarios? Mélisande the abuse victim – at first by Bluebeard (we learn this from a subsequent Maeterlinck play, Ariane et Barbe-bleu) and then by Golaud – has been an angle recently explored. The first approach plays up the beauty of the music, the second its potential for terror. Whichever way it is performed, it is strong and unforgettable. Here is an opera that moves because of what it does not explain rather than what it does. That is the essence of its symbolism, relying for the most part on the contrast between light and darkness.

Composed: 1893–95; 1901–02
Premiered: 1902, Paris
Libretto after Maurice Maeterlinck’s play

Act I

Golaud, grandson of King Arkel of Allemonde, discovers Mélisande weeping by a pool. She will not let him retrieve a crown sparkling in the water. He persuades her to follow him, although they are both lost. Geneviève reads to the near-blind Arkel a letter from her son Golaud to his half-brother Pelléas. Golaud has been married to Mélisande for six months but still knows little about her. He asks Pelléas to display a light if Arkel will receive Mélisande. Arkel had hoped that an arranged marriage might end years of strife, but he accepts Golaud’s choice. Arkel reminds Pelléas that his father is gravely ill. Geneviève tells him to place the light in the turret. Pelléas joins Geneviève and Mélisande in the gardens. A storm is brewing. Mélisande fears for the safety of a departing ship. She does not understand when he tells her he is going away.

Act II

Pelléas has brought Mélisande to a well. Her long hair falls down to the water. He asks how she met Golaud. As she plays with her wedding ring it falls into the well. Asked what she should tell Golaud, Pelléas replies ‘the truth’. Mélisande is unhappy living in the gloomy castle and fears that she will not live long. Golaud notices that the ring is missing. She replies that she must have lost it while looking for shells with his son, Yniold. He tells her to look for it with Pelléas. They go to the grotto together, even though they know the ring is not there. Inside they see three sleeping beggars. Pelléas says they will return one day.


Mélisande is combing her hair at a window....

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