An Introduction to DEBUSSY’s only completed opera Pelléas et Mélisande



The French have a penchant for revolutions, it seems, even if their more recent ones have tended to be more artistic than societal. The celebrated avant-garde composer and conductor Pierre Boulez stated in 1967 that ‘all opera houses should be blown up, as they are full of dust and excrement’ – but two years later he was to be found at London’s Royal Opera House conducting a definitive version of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. This operatic one off, Debussy’s only completed opera was regarded as a highly revolutionary, subversive work, almost an anti-opera when premiered in 1902. Not surprisingly, as Debussy frequently proclaimed himself exasperated by the stale conventions of opera, even if he never expressed it quite as violently as Boulez. 


Those expecting a violent modernist work though, are in for a surprise. Never has a revolution been so euphonious, so muted, nuanced and mysterious. Compared to the ever more opulent and stridently expressed operas of the turn of the last century, notably Richard Strauss and Puccini, Pelléas is a model of restraint and proportion. Writing a letter to his old professor Ernest Guiraud in 1890 he outlined his operatic credo “My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes……No time, no place… Music in opera is far too predominant…..Too much singing…..”. 


The Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck (1862 - 1949) had taken Paris by storm in 1890 with his early plays, which were concerned less with external drama, than a symbolist manifestation of dreamlike inner world of alienated characters, deriving from the French craze for Edgar Allen Poe, who had been a major influence on the most significant French poets of the nineteenth century, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud and more. Debussy read the play of Pelléas on its publication in 1892, and soon after witnessing its premiere the following year, received permission to set it, largely completing it in 1895. It was not accepted for performance at the Opéra-Comique until 1898, and then Debussy orchestrated and revised it. The premiere in 1902 was marked with scandal. Debussy had promised the role of Mélisande to Maeterlinck’s mistress, Georgette Leblanc, but changed his mind when he heard a young Scottish singer, Mary Garden, who had created a sensation in Charpentier’s Louise in 1900. Maeterlinck first learned of the change in a newspaper article, and threatened to give Debussy a ‘drubbing to teach him what’s what’, and was dissuaded by Mme. Debussy from attacking him with a cane. Obscene leaflets satirizing the opera were distributed at the dress rehearsal, which Mary Garden insisted was organized by Maeterlinck himself. Because of this, the dress rehearsal was disrupted, but a claque of Debussy’s admirers ensured a receptive audience for the premiere, with interest growing after each succeeding performance. Maeterlinck refused to see the opera, capitulating only in 1920, when he realized that the opera was a full realization of his vision. Ironically, Maeterlinck name survives by its association with Debussy. His plays, for the most part, do not bear revival today.


The opera attained fourteen performances in its initial run, achieving 100 by 1913. Productions were not plentiful in the early years, though the work always made a profound impression. In 1907 it appeared at Brussels and Frankfurt, in 1908 New York and La Scala, Milan – under Toscanini, and London in 1909.


What is striking about this opera is how familiar ingredients are used in unfamiliar, even disorienting ways. There was nothing new in sending the conventions of opera - set pieces, arias, ensembles and choruses - off packing, Wagner had done that half a century before. Nor was setting a prose play almost intact, without versifying it for a libretto, totally original; there were precedents in Russia in the 1860’s, most significantly Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, an opera Debussy knew from the score only, and which obsessed him. Even Massenet, the most commercially successful French opera composer of the day, had, in his Thaïs of 1894, set a prose libretto, without verse and rhyming conventions. For all its dreamlike atmosphere, Debussy’s score is tightly wound and organized, employing Wagner’s symphonic method of score constructing with leitmotivs – ‘leading motives’ that signify or identify character, event or emotion. Nothing new here – there were many French operas of this period that slavishly imitated Wagner. But instead of Wagner’s domineering symphonic discourse, Debussy favours musical dissipation, inconclusive expression, mirroring the play with consequences left unexpressed, lost, like the characters in Maeterlinck’s dank forests and suffocating grottoes. Beneath such devices, the play is a domestic drama, another trope on the eternal love triangle. Golaud, out hunting, discovers Mélisande lost in the forest and takes her home and marries her. She discovers a soul mate in his younger brother, Pelléas, and Golaud, besides himself with jealousy, kills him. Mélisande dies, or rather fades away. She, a character who comes from nowhere, and who, rather like a child, seems to inhabit only the present tense, has exerted a fascination second only to Bizet’s Carmen, with so many unanswered questions attending her. 


Such a mystifying absence of context, viewpoint, and rhetoric sets this opera apart. The music clings to the text, intensifying it and the all-important atmospherics, but cannot act as subtext to the characters inner feelings, as they are so ambiguous. Curiously this approach leads to great dramatic truth. When finally, just before his death at the hands of his brother, Pelléas admits his feelings to Mélisande – ‘Je t’aime’ – answered by Mélisande ‘Je t’aime aussi’, it is unaccompanied, blurted out, embarrassed, more spoken than sung. It is an almost comic contrast to the heaving ecstasies of Tristan and Isolde, or the emotional buffetings of Puccini, yet not a whit less emotional than either, and paradoxically, rather more realistic.  Puccini momentarily considered setting Pelléas as an opera himself, but was very struck by Debussy’s version. In fact his later operas reveal a profound debt to Debussy’s harmonic and orchestral language, and even his word setting, which became more syllabic and conversational and less melody driven, though he never aspired to the restraint that marks Pelléas as the unique creation it is.


Is Pelléas a difficult opera? Not at all, if you do not come to opera with conventional expectations. There is a lieder-like sensibility in the singing, one can hang on every word, and each will be audible. The orchestra, though smaller than most for this period, is exquisitely used, fulfilling all of Maeterlinck’s evocations of forest and water. After its premiere, composer Vincent d’Indy, wrote in a most perceptive review:  “The composer has in fact simply felt and expressed the human feelings and human sufferings in human terms, despite the outward appearance the characters present of living in a dream." He also acknowledged the influence of early 17th century Italian opera, and one must remember that opera was invented then to declaim poetry in a more heightened and expressive fashion than was possible with just the spoken voice. Debussy, in Pelléas, peels back the accretions of habit and returns to the source. His revolution is achieved by re-examining the initial tenets of opera, and by doing so, creates a most beguiling, hallucinatory and intensely emotional experience.  


© Julian Grant 2009. This article appeared in the 2009 Holland Park Opera Programme.