Pelléas et Mélisande has some claim to being an anti-opera, for Debussy wrote it in conscious rejection of the German and Italian traditions that dominated the art. Against the German influence, and especially against Wagner, he drained his score of harmonic tension and large-scale musical developments, choosing instead to ravish the ear with timbral beauties that seem to hover, cloud-like, never building up harmonic momentum in any one direction for very long. Against the Italian tradition he abandoned the operatic model of alternating recitatives and arias, and he even, to a large extent, abandoned song: his is a prose opera, in which the singing is a form of heightened speech, supple and flexible, but never overtly “operatic” in the conventional sense.
For all that, it is a masterpiece; certainly I count it among my half-dozen or so favourite operas. Its principal attraction, for me, is the overwhelming beauty of its orchestral score: Debussy had an ear for orchestral colour that few could match, and to my ear he was never better than he is here. Indeed, I believe that the quality of the orchestral playing is the sine qua non for this opera; without a rich, sensual orchestral presence the opera can sound thin and insubstantial. When the playing is good, however, it is an ocean of sound on which I would happily drift for days.
Based on a play of the same name by the symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, the story is of a love triangle between a young woman (Mélisande), her husband (Golaud), and her brother-in-law (Pelléas). It has a quasi-medieval setting, taking place mostly in and around a coastal castle in the mythical kingdom of Allemonde, and the action turns on a few fairy-tale elements – a deep well, a lost ring, a dark cave. The story is told episodically, through a series of somewhat disconnected vignettes, and the drama has (in the opera, at least) a subdued, ominous tone, as if the characters are all, without knowing it, teetering on the edge of a profound and sorrowful disaster. The stage should be dimly lit, the figures emerging from shadows.
Pelléas et Mélisande is at odds with the “Great moments in opera” mentality; there are no grand musical gestures or thrilling high notes. Nonetheless, it is such a wonderful opera that I cannot resist pointing to a few favourite moments.
A key scene opens Act II. Pelléas and Mélisande meet together at a well near the castle. Pelléas questions her about how she met Golaud, and she, apparently wishing to change the subject, removes her wedding ring and begins tossing it into the air. It falls into the well. This clip begins while they are talking at the well; I recommend watching to the end of the scene, which is about 3 minutes altogether.
Pelléas may claim that the ring is unimportant, but the fact is that there is something special about it, for we learn in the next scene that at the moment when it fell into the well, Golaud’s horse, in another part of the woods, frighted and threw him.
When Golaud learns that the ring is lost, and questions Mélisande about it, she lies, telling him that she lost it in a cave near the sea. Golaud demands that she recover it immediately, and so in this scene, which closes Act II, she and Pelléas go to the cave at night. It is a wonderfully eerie scene. There is the hesitation, the fear of the darkness, then a short burst of delight at the beautiful night sky before Mélisande observes three old men, half-starved, sleeping against the cave wall, and retreats. Why does Pelléas want her to search deep into the cave? Why is the sea “unhappy”? The sense of discomforting menace underlying this scene, subtle but unmistakable, illustrates Debussy’s great achievement in this opera. This clip begins, again, about 3 or 4 minutes before the end of the scene:
The opening of Act III features one of the few moments in the opera when a character sings — sings not just in the opera, that is, but in the story. Mélisande, sitting at the window of her tower, is combing her long hair and singing a song. It’s an enchanting melody sung (paradoxically) without orchestral accompaniment. It serves as prelude to a long love scene between Pelléas and Mélisande — I call it the “Rapunzel scene” — in which Pelléas, at the foot of the tower, wraps himself in Mélisande’s hair. But the initial song is over in a minute or two:
There is quite a lot of opera after this point — five Acts in total — but these clips give, I believe, a good flavour for what it is like, and why it is so wonderful. More than most operas, it really ought to be experienced as a whole.