Claude Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande

Opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

This one is in response to OperaScribe’s recent post.

Called the anti-Opera, Pelleas et Melisande is possibly the most beautiful musical stage work of the 20th century (although, ironically, it was actually written in the 1890s). It does not have the decadent fire and fury of Strauss’ Salome, but, in its own delicate manner, Debussy’s creation is a work of extreme beauty. Chances are, had it not been for the play, the composer may never have completed an opera, as the extremely loose narrative and seemingly random scene order was what attracted Debussy to the subject. Four scenes from the original play were cut (the openings of acts one, three, and five, along with scene four of act two) much of the material involving dialogue for the servant women who appear (silently) in Debussy’s act five (the only act that consists of only a single tableau). The symbolism is actually not as dense as most think. For example, Melisande’s response to questions about her age is that she is cold (implying that she is far more ancient than she seems). Her loss of her wedding ring and Pelleas’ fetish for her hair are both symbolic of the sexual undertones of their relationship.

SETTING: A mythical kingdom, Middle Ages. Golaud (baritone) is the elder grandson of King Arkel (bass) of Allemonde (a possible play on the words “all” and “world” in Flemish and French respectively, the libretto being essentially the play of the same name by the Belgian playwright Maeterlinck). The prince discovers Melisande (high mezzo-soprano) a mysterious young woman (?) in a forest in a state of total disorientation. He takes her away and marries her, but this is only the beginning of their marital problems when the new bride meets Golaud’s younger half-brother, Pelleas (baritone-Martin). Other characters include Genevieve (contralto) the mother of Golaud and Pelleas (who basically disappears after act one), Yinold (boy soprano) the son of Golaud by his first marriage, a random and mysterious shepherd (baritone) who appears in act four, and a doctor (bass) who attends to the dying Melisande in act five.


ACT 1: (28 minutes)

Scene 1: A forest.

1: Je ne pourrais plus sortir The prelude is brief and focuses on two themes (the first a series of four haunting intervals which continues to the end of the scene, the other a strange five note theme (two long, then a triplet, representing the love between Pelleas and Melisande) in the mid-woodwind instruments). We come upon Golaud, lost in the forest. He soon comes upon Melisande by a well. Slowly he gets information out of her **, although it leaves him even more confused than he was before he spoke to her. Much of this is set at speak-speed (eighth and sixteenth notes), and gives the impression that the girl might be otherworldly. Themes from the prelude dominate in the first interlude as the scenery is changed out.

Scene 2: A room in the castle of King Arkel.

12: Voici, ce qu’il écrit Genevieve reads a letter from Golaud, also at speak-rhythm * (this is notably one of only three passages in the opera which remotely resemble arias), it is followed by a dark passage from Arkel (notice the whole chords coming from the orchestra), but overall the scene is very gentle. Pelleas comes on and they decide to meet up with Golaud as his ship arrives.

Scene 3: In front of the castle.

24: Hoe! Hisse! Hoe! After a brief conversation between Genevieve and Melisande, most of the rest of the scene is divided between the mysterious off-stage voices of the sailors * and a dialogue between Melisande and Pelleas (the five-note love theme returns, ending the act).

ACT 2: (27.5 minutes)

Scene 1: By a well.

1: Vous ne savez pas Pelleas and Melisande by a fountain, her long hair dips into the water, then her ring falls in, and she does nothing to try to reclaim it from the well ** because we can tell from the music that the two are already very much in love with each other. Notice that when Melisande says that the ring is lost, her words are set to the same notes as when she enunciated the same words in act one, including the repetition.

6: The interlude is more traditional sounding material, horns, then wondering strings *.

Scene 2: A room in the castle, Golaud in bed, having fallen from a horse.

10: Ah! Ah! Tout va bien Again, conversation *, between two people (the scene, perhaps uniquely in the opera relies on the action on stage between the two characters for it to work since it is the only scene which is neither sexy nor frightening). Melisande is at first rather tender, although Golaud gets angry once he discovers that she is not wearing her wedding ring. Golaud eventually ends up being the comparatively calm one, as Melisande starts to go into her panic mode (return to material from act one scene one). She lies (symbolic of the fact that although she fears Golaud, she does not love him) and tells him that she lost it in a cave. The weakest scene in the opera, and the only one I can honestly count as definitely boring, thankfully).

20: The interlude * has a bucolic hue going on. It eventually bogs down into despair and we descend.

Scene 3: In front of a cave by the sea.

23: Oui, c’est ici Pelleas pretends that going into a cave at night to find a ring that they both know isn’t there isn’t a euphemism for a sexual tryst *. Melisande sees three blind men asleep in the cave, and they decide to go home. The music fades out.

ACT 3: (32 minutes)

Scene 1: A tower in the castle.

0, 1, 5, 10: Mes longs cheveux/Oh! Oh! Mes cheveux! A beautiful prelude fully of mysterious dread ** flows into Melisande letting her hair down ** (this is the second aria-like structure in the score). Pelleas arrives and the tension turns sexual very quickly as he lusts after her hair *** (really, symbolic of his desire to possess her physically, and Debussy gives the scene some rather passionate music). Eventually, he ties her long tresses to a willow tree and they are discovered by Golaud, who laughs off their behavior as “child’s play”. The interlude plays on the five-note theme, but is a bit eery * and intensive. It moves into a dark theme (suitable dungeon music) which appears to be related to the very first theme in the score, the four haunting intervals.

Scene 2: Cellars beneath the castle.

15: Prenez-garde! Golaud holds Pelleas as the latter looks down into a prison cistern. Pelleas quickly asks to leave *. Spooky.

Scene 3: Outside the cellars.

17: Ah! je respire enfin! Debussy opens the scene with brilliant interlude depicting the effect of rising from darkness to light followed by a happy song ** for Pelleas, grateful for having returned to sunlight. Golaud, to much more serious music, warns Pelleas not to upset Melisande so much: she is pregnant (although how this news isn’t a trap, given that it means that Pelleas could theoretically have relations with Melisande without fear of pregnancy, since she is already pregnant…). This scene is the half-way mark in the score.

Scene 4: A room in the castle by a door.

22: Viens, nous allons nous asseoir ici One of the strongest scenes ** in the score as Golaud semi-interrogates his son Yinold about Pelleas and Melisande. At first the child is terrified as to what his father is forcing him to spy on. He describes what the couple is doing in the next room. This all starts to become somewhat incesteously pedophilic as Yinold mimics the way Pelleas kisses Melisande on his father and then exclaims about how grey his hair is getting. The spying sequence is the most intensive, as the orchestra almost gallops with terror. Crash, bang, the act ends.

ACT 4: (36 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the castle.

0: Furious preluding * (get used to it since Debussy now has a pulse going) and then we are off into a conversation between Pelleas and Melisande (now that his father has recovered, he can travel again, but first, can they meet in the park that night?)

3: Maintenant que le père de Pelleas Arkel gets the third and longest arioso (some six minutes) ** in the score as he confesses his sorrow that Melisande (so beautiful she is) is unable to be happy in his castle. A combination of tenderness and intensity.

9: Eh bien, mon epee? Golaud comes on with blood on his forehead and angry. He orders his sword from Melisande, but then grabs her by the hair and forces her to the floor ***. Golaud makes the only references in the opera to a historical context by crying out the name of Absolom, the son of King David who slept with all of the mistresses of his father (although this time he is referring to the brother, Pelleas). Arkel orders him out, asking Melisande if his grandson is drunk. She, mournfully, replies negative: instead his love for her is dead. We are drawn into this scene by the orchestral intensity, which matches the savagery on stage.

15: The interlude *** is one of the more striking moments in the score, also one of the few marked fortissimo.

Scene 2: By the well in act two scene one.

19: Oh! Cette pierre est lourde Ynold is seen trying to move a huge stone to get at his golden ball (probably another symbolic totem). A flock of sheep and its shepherd come on **. The sheep appear to be weeping, and Ynold asks where they are going and the Shepherd appears to indicate that they are going to be slaughtered (but not in so many words) before leaving. Ynold goes off to find someone to talk to.

22, 28, 34: C’est le dernier soir/On dirais que ta voix/Il ne sais pas que nous l’avons vu The love duet **: 1) Pelleas awaits Melisande. Agitation, fear that she might not come. But she does! Love music. 2) Pelleas gets the closest thing he will ever get to an aria *** as he declares the limitless extent of his love for Melisande (extremely passionate, even a little too much). The castle gates are closed (timpani, low strings rumbling), it is too late to return, they are alone at last! but wait–3) Someone is lurking about! The final moments of the act are of extreme agitation *** as Golaud lurks about just as Melisande begs Pelleas to allow caution to the wind and they madly embrace. Golaud runs Pelleas thru with his sword, Melisande, mildly injured, runs away in terror, declaring that she is too much of a coward and runs away. Bang on the timpani, the act ends.

ACT 5: The death room of Melisande, months later. (24 minutes)

0: The prelude is scored for light strings, flutes, and harp *. The action starts off with a conversation between the three surviving adult male characters (Golaud, Arkel, the doctor). Melisande has given birth to a baby girl, but is rapidly expiring.

3: Ouvrez la fenêtre Melisande asks to have the window opened. The music is fragile **, in imitation of the heroine’s condition, as her dialogue with Arkel rolls on.

8: Melisande, as-tu pitie? Golaud questions Melisande: he demands the truth, she tells him that nothing ever actually happened, she and Pelleas were in love, but the kiss he saw was the most that ever happened. Frenzied music **, intensity. Arkel intervenes, asking if Golaud wants to kill her: negative says he, I have already killed her.

13: Qu’avez-vous fait? Arkel’s dialogue with Melisande * gets even further away from anywhere, as she doesn’t even know about the baby. She is cold, but doesn’t want to window shut. Her daughter will weep as well. The servant women come in to pizzicato strings.

17: Attention, attention Arkel brings on the finale *** as the servant women fall to their knees: Melisande is dead. Arkel delivers the final monologue to one of the most striking moments in orchestral music: we are in the presence of Death itself. Arkel is the last to realize the truth, themes ranging all the way back to act one return as the King declares that Melisande’s replacement has already arrived. Icy arpeggios from the harp and strings. Curtain.


Pelleas et Melisande is the anti-opera because it isn’t really about the singing. Instead, it is about the marriage of words and orchestra and by extension, music. The singers are merely another section of the orchestra, which just happen to be on stage for an audience to witness. They rarely physically do anything and they hardly sing anything, other than words. There is hardly a moment when the actions or notes of any of the singers exists for any purpose other than to convey the narrative. Even the vocal casting (all middling voices by sex, requiring neither a high soprano nor a true tenor, the most showy of the operatic voices) is deliberate. Although it should be noted that Melisande and Pelleas have matching vocal ranges (C4 to G#5 and C3 to G#4,) the exactly same notes merely an octave apart, and since the range is so middling for both, they can be performed by any soprano or mezzo or tenor or baritone respectively. They are ultimately symbols of human actions and emotions: of jealousy, passion, mystery, power, beauty, innocence, living, dying. This probably comes closer to the Wagnerian ideal of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony than anything Wagner ever wrote. In other words, Pelleas breaks Wagner. It isn’t in imitation of Parsifal, it is a human story than transcends the mystical nonsense of Parsifal! It tears off the veil of fantasy, of mythology, that Wagner so desperately needed constantly in order to write anything, and leaves us with weak, vulnerable, people. True, it has replaced it with a veneer of medievalism, but it is so vague as to be nothing more than a ruse, to clothe the real humanity of the work in some vestige of mystery so as to make the audience more comfortable, not the composer. The most human scenes of all are when Golaud tortures Melisande by dragging her by the hair (a symbol of both beauty, femininity, and sexuality, which he, in his jealous, seeks to degrade her with) and the kiss (the ultimate symbol of love in Western culture).

There are no numbers, no real choruses to speak of, just dialogues, almost an endless series of dialogues broken up by the occasional monologue. Apart from act five, there is hardly a moment in the opera when more than three people are on stage at any given time, and usually there are only two. Other than the kiss, there is no climax in the plot at all. There are leitmotifs, but these also are enslaved to the drama, rather than the other way around as in Wagner. They are not the entirety of the score, they do not dominate. It is true that the opera lacks pageantry, but that isn’t its purpose. Although it is about princes and kings and mysterious waifs, it is about their intimate lives, not their public ones.

These are the gifts of Pelleas. To provide us with more pathways, more doorways, into other ways of doing opera, and to also see more deeply into ourselves, to probe into our darker realms, than other others. Plays set to music in which the music is itself a player, rather than symphonies that happen to be programmed with a narrative. Debussy does this here with a beautiful, Impressionistic score, which proves that modern opera can be both current and melodious. It isn’t designed to quicken the pulse (and I say that as someone who venerates the great operatic climaxes of the 19th century), it is designed to stir the heart and force the brain to think. To use our conscience. Maeterlinck does that better than Wagner, after all, aren’t plays designed to make us think as much as entertain us? An alpha.

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