Pelléas et Mélisande

Drame lyrique in five acts (1902)

Music by

Claude Debussy

Text by

Maurice Maeterlinck

With the world premiere of »Pelléas et Mélisande« in 1902, Claude Debussy challenged his contemporaries to listen to music in a new way. His instrumentation was without precedent. He transposed the Wagnerian leitmotif technique into a subtle tone painting and described atmospheres and dispositions of the soul that elude description and that even music is often only able to gesture towards.

The opera is based on a drama of the same name by the Flemish symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck that tells the tragic, fairytale-like story of a love triangle between the stepbrothers Golaud and Pelléas and the mysterious Mélisande. The plot is sketched in vague terms, with the main emphasis on exploring the depths of the characters’ psyches. The tragedy takes the form not of open conflict but of subliminal mental processes. Debussy’s music remains equally restrained, often approaching silence. Myriad colours shimmer beneath the monochrome surface, however, and Debussy manages to perfectly translate the enigmatic, morbid atmosphere into music. In 1991, Ruth Berghaus, one of the greatest directors of the 20th century, staged »Pelléas et Mélisande« at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden.





Golaud, having wandered astray while hunting, comes upon the mysterious Mélisande. He questions her, but learns only that she has fled the company of mankind. Golaud convinces her to follow him. Geneviève reads King Arkel a letter, which Golaud has written to his brother Pelléas. In the letter, Golaud tells of his marriage to Mélisande, and asks Pelléas to ask Arkel whether he is prepared to honour this stranger as his own daughter. A particular fire signal is to indicate Arkel’s willingness to accept Mélisande, who complains to Geneviève about the gloominess of the park and the castle. Pelléas and Mélisande find the ship that brought Mélisande to this place.

Mélisande loses the ring she received from Golaud in the fountain. In the instant the ring falls into the fountain, Golaud’s horse rears up. Golaud notices that the ring is missing from Mélisande’s finger, and sends her into the dark night to look for the ring. Pelléas is to accompany her. In a cave, Pelléas and Mélisande discover three sleeping old troglodytes. Mélisande flees in horror.

Pelléas amuses himself, playing with Mélisande’s hair. Golaud arrives, rebukes their »child’s play«, and leads Pelléas to the Cistern of Death, advising his brother to avoid Mélisande in future. Golaud increasingly doubts Mélisande’s faithfulness. After ordering his son Yniold to observe them, he learns that the two have kissed.

Mélisande promises Pelléas that she will come, when evening falls, to the fountain where she has lost the ring. It is to be their final meeting. Arkel tries to convey to Mélisande his own affection for her. After Golaud humiliates Mélisande, she and Pelléas meet in secret. Golaud, jealous, then murders his brother. Mélisande flees again.

Mélisande has now given birth to a child, and fallen very ill. Golaud demands to know from her whether her love for Pelléas was unchaste. Mélisande dies. Arkel words of eulogy over her: »Oh, she was such a dear small creature, so timid, so quiet and so tender. Yes, this poor small creature was full of mystery, as are we all …«.

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