Pelléas et Mélisande (Pelleas and Melisande)
  • Claude Debussy. Opéra in five acts. 1902.
  • Libretto after the play by Maurice Maeterlinck.
  • First performance by the Opéra-Comique at the Salle Favart, Paris, on 30th April 1902.
CHARACTERS

Arkel, King of Allemonde

bass

Geneviève, mother of Pelléas and Golaud

contralto

Pelléas, grandson of Arkel

baritone

Golaud, his half-brother

baritone

Mélisande

soprano

Yniold, Golaud’s son by a former marriage

treble

Doctor

baritone

Shepherd

baritone

Golaud, out hunting in the forest, loses his way. Hearing the sound of weeping, he finds Mélisande and persuades her to come home with him. In Arkel’s castle, Geneviève reads a letter from Golaud, confessing his marriage to Mélisande and seeking forgiveness. Pelléas is refused permission to join his dying friend Marcellus, since his father is also near to death. In the third scene Pelléas and Mélisande meet outside the castle. In the second act Pelléas is showing Mélisande the castle grounds. They sit by the side of a shady fountain, where, as the clock strikes midday, she drops the ring that Golaud had given her. In the castle Golaud is resting. At midday his horse had thrown him. He notices that Mélisande no longer wears the ring he gave her, and angrily tells her that she must find it, with the help of Pelléas. In the following scene Pelléas and Mélisande enter the cave where she has told Golaud she had lost the ring. They find paupers sleeping there, and quietly leave. In the third act Mélisande, at the window of a tower in the castle, is combing her hair for the night. Pelléas comes to the foot of the tower, from where he can fondle her hair. Golaud emerges, to upbraid them for their childishness. He leads Pelléas down to a disused well in the castle vaults, where a slip would be fatal. When they emerge he openly tells Pelléas to avoid the company of Mélisande. At night in front of the castle, Golaud makes his son Yniold stand on his shoulders and tell him what he sees in Mélisande’s chamber. He sees her there with Pelléas. Pelléas, in the fourth act, has been warned that he must leave. Before he goes, he seeks to meet Mélisande by the Fountain of the Blind. Arkel is moved by the beauty of Mélisande and is shocked when Golaud, in his presence, speaks angrily to her. In the park, Yniold questions a shepherd, before running off. Pelléas and Mélisande meet and avow their love for each other, observed by Golaud, who kills Pelléas and wounds Mélisande. In the final act Mélisande, in a chamber in the castle, is recovering from her wounds. She gives birth to a baby girl, but dies, leaving the child to live in her place.

Set in a medieval dream-world, Pelléas et Mélisande, which had firmly established Maeterlinck’s international reputation, provided an apt framework for Debussy’s evocative opera, in which Mélisande occupies the central position, the drama studying her in relationship with others, with Golaud, with Pelléas and with Arkel. While remote from Wagner in its pre-Raphaelite world, the opera makes use of Wagnerian techniques of leitmotifs and of some Wagnerian harmonic elements. In other respects, however, it remains thoroughly characteristic of Debussy, with a modal opening that sets the period, scene and mood.