Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” is one of the great operas of all time.
Premiering on April 30, 1902, the work was conceived as a major work of the 20th century. Debussy himself had fashioned the work with the idea of moving toward a new operatic ideal that he described as “No time, no place. No big scene […] Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome […] My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes. No discussion or arguments between the characters whom I see at the mercy of life or destiny.”
It received mixed criticism at its premiere but its status as a fixture of the modern operatic canon is beyond doubt at this juncture.
Short Plot Summary
Prince Golaud finds a weeping girl in the forest. This is Mélisande. He takes her with him.
Geneviève, mother of Golaud and Pelléas, reads a letter to the aged King Arkel. She reveals that Golaud has married Mélisande and asks his brother to let him know of the King’s reaction to the marriage. Arkel had wanted Golaud married to Princess Ursule to end wars and ancient hatreds but accepts the news. Pelléas weeps about the dying friend Marcellus and wishes to go to him. He is dissuaded from this and ultimately remains to wait for the return of his brother.
While out with Pelléas, Mélisande drops a ring that Golaud gave her. She tells Golaud, who is angered by the news and tells her to go find it. She doesn’t want to go alone, so he urges her to take Pelléas.
Pelléas and Mélisande continue to interact playfully, though Golaud makes nothing of it. However, he is not comfortable with their relationship and tells Pelléas that Mélisande is pregnant and must not be bothered further. Golaud questions his child Yniold about what he has seen between his wife and brother and ultimately learns that the child had seen them kissing “when it was raining.”
During a meeting between Arkel and Mélisande, Golaud storms in with blood on his forehead and starts to mistreat her. She concludes that Golaud does not love her anymore.
Pelléas prepares to leave forever after reconciling with his feelings for Mélisande. He confesses his love to her and she reciprocates. Golaud, who has overheard the exchange kills his brother, though his wife escapes.
Mélisande gives birth to a child and dies. Golaud ends up filled with torment and guilt over having killed his brother.
Watch and Listen
Here is a recording by Claudio Abbado starring Maria Ewing and José Van Dam.