Mary Garden interprétant Mélisande, photographiée probablement à New York (Davis & Eickmeyer)

Mary Garden interprétant Mélisande, photographiée probablement à New York (Davis & Eickmeyer)

Pelleas and Melisande is a theatre play by Maurice Maeterlinck dating back to 1892. Its musical legacy is well known: Gabriel Faure, Jean Sibelius, and Arnold Schoenberg would subsequently go on to compose works to accompany or illustrate it. Mention the word « Pelleas… », however, and it’s primarily Claude Debussy’s opera that springs to mind…

The reason for this is because his Pelleas and Melisande is wonderfully hypnotic in nature. The composer’s only opera, it remains perhaps the only symbolist lyric drama. In contrast to realist naturalism, symbolism sketches the outline of ideas and even emotional states that then weave the enigmatic threads of the apparent reality together. In this atmosphere, everything communicates but nothing is clear. These are dreams that are destined to be like clouds in nature. The drama lends itself to this: « Maeterlinck worked on the fringes of poetry and silence, voices kept to a minimum, with the sound of still waters » (Gaston Bachelard, L’eau et les rêves).
What’s that I hear you say?
That same old chestnut: a heartbreaking love triangle with A in love with B who is in love with C? In which A and B promise to reunite and brothers A and C demonstrate the macabre trigonometry of jealousy and murder? QED, the hopelessness of love protects the ideal.

Sure, but in the realm of Allemonde where this story takes place; everything seems cloaked in apprehension… The vacillation of its contours only has the exquisite precision of feelings as its corollary. The prosaic plot diffuses into the inconsistency of the elusive. The human beings and the facts about them are uncertain, but their inner lives are in turmoil. And it is this idea that Claude Debussy (1862-1918) twists by exploring harmonic, melodic and sonorous conduits that spawn from Richard Wagner’s protective shadows: « I spent many a day in pursuit of this « nothingness » from which she (Melisande) comes (…) Now it is Arkel who is tormenting me. He is doing it from beyond the grave, and he has that selfless and prophetic tenderness of those who are about to disappear, and all this must be expressed via do, re, mi, fa, sol, la si, do !!! What a task! » Music does not classically lend itself to songs that are sung, but it « begins where dramatic speech finds itself powerless to express itself. Music is perfect for the inexpressible » he continues, orchestrating the depth of the inner turmoil of the protagonists concerned, whose prosodic singing floats like a somnambulistic conversation melted in unforgettable tessituras that have not been matched since then.  All operatic traditions are swept up in it. Pelleas…is an enchantment that keeps on giving. It breaks the boundaries and delights with its clandestine confines.

Pelleas and Melisande was composed in 1902, after a decade of work. Oh the scandal! The rehearsal caused a scene. The first night featured fans of the Master secreted in the hall to whip up enthusiasm and quash any barbed responses. This battalion of supporters kept things going for many long months until success was sufficiently in the bag for them to quit. How amusing to read a review from back in the day: “In his doubly amorphous art the removal of rhythm responds to the suppression of melody. Mr Debussy’s orchestra appears thin and shrill. He may think it is a caressing noise but it’s actually scratching and wounding. There is very little noise, true, but what there is of it is an ugly little sound.” (Camille Bellaigue, La Revue des Deux Mondes, 15th May 1902). We should add that the librettist, Maeterlinck himself, fell out with Debussy after he refused to take on the author’s wife, the then famous Georgette Leblanc, to sing the role of Melisande in favour of young Scottish singer Mary Garden: « I cannot imagine a more gently obsequious vocal timbre ». This disagreement almost ended up with a duel! Many years later though, Maeterlinck recognised the aptness of the work.

An opera without any musical offspring, Pelleas and Melisande by Claude Debussy is a melodious epiphany interwoven with songs that generate a mist of sublime illusion.


diptyque is the official partner of the Aix Festival 2016. The opening opera is Pelleas and Melisande by Claude Debussy, directed by Esa-Pekka Salonen and with stage direction by Katie Mitchell.