The story of... Debussy's 'Pelléas et Mélisande'
With its enigmatic characterisation and emphasis on words, Debussy's only opera shattered the mould, says Roger Nichols
‘A librettist who deals in hints… Music in opera is far too predominant… The blossoming of the voice into true singing should occur only when required.
'A painting done in grey is the ideal… My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes… No discussion or arguments between the characters whom I see at the mercy of life or destiny.’
This profession of faith delivered by Claude Debussy to his teacher Ernest Guiraud around 1890 tells us much about the setting of Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande that the composer embarked on three years later. Maeterlinck does indeed deal in hints.
Who is this Mélisande that Prince Golaud finds weeping in the forest? What does she want of life? She certainly wants something she doesn’t have, as Debussy’s music tells us with its unfailing mixture of charm and insubstantiality. Do she and Golaud’s younger stepbrother Pelléas indulge in an illicit relationship? At the end of the opera, we’re still not absolutely sure, even if Golaud persuades himself that they didn’t.
We can get some idea of the new ground the opera conquered by comparing it with two other operas given their Paris premieres in 1893: Massenet’s Werther and Wagner’s Die Walküre. Let's compare the harrowing scene in which Charlotte reads out Werther’s letters with the one where the princes’ mother Geneviève does likewise with Golaud’s letter to his brother.
Here we find, even giving due importance to the difference in emotional weight of the two epistles, that they belong to different worlds. The Massenet uses changes in tempo and orchestral colour to highlight the text, while the Debussy does indeed resemble ‘a painting done in grey’, with more than a nod to plainsong but, for all its discretion, containing the seeds of all that follows.
As for Wagner and Die Walküre, premiered at the Opéra on 12 May, just five days before Debussy saw Maeterlinck’s play, this influence (and even more those of Tristan and Parsifal, both of which he’d seen at Bayreuth a few years earlier) surfaces either in odd corners of the sung portions. It also appears, more obviously, in the orchestral interludes Debussy had to add before the 1902 premiere to allow for scene changes.
As the voice should blossom into singing only when required, so the full orchestral forces come into their own in these interludes, giving voice to the passions that the characters themselves are wary of expressing, either because they are weighed down by ‘life or destiny’, or simply because they are uncertain about what they feel. Golaud (presumably) loves Mélisande, but how is he to make emotional contact with her? On stage, he does so most effectively through rage. But some of the interludes paint a picture of his honest bewilderment – the man of action reduced to inaction.
During rehearsals in the spring of 1902 Debussy told the cast to ‘forget you are singers’ – which understandably didn’t go down too well. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the opera is its reliance on the words, at a time when Wagner’s operas were invading the Parisian stage and when even the classically inclined Saint-Saëns could say that fussing about librettos was a waste of time because the words were always inaudible. Nowhere is Debussy’s genius more evident than in the magic with which he infuses the seemingly most innocent of vocal phrases.
Two come to mind, both spoken by Pelléas to Mélisande. In the first scene of Act II, after she has thrown her ring into the well, he tries to comfort her: ‘il ne faut pas s’inquiéter ainsi pour une bague’ (‘don’t worry so much about the ring’). In the arching phrase we sense his tenderness, but the Dorian modality triggers unease: she has in fact every reason to be anxious, as we find out.
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His response later on is tender too, when they go to seek the ring in the grotto, persuading her not to wake the three old men huddled in a corner: ‘ils dorment encore profondément’ (‘they’re still sleeping soundly’). Again, there’s a poetic power in the undulating vocal phrase. But against this, the cello plays a contrary rhythm: is it right, it seems to ask, to leave them sleeping when there’s a famine in the land? Might not a prince concern himself more?
One of the opera’s greatest achievements is that it leaves us asking questions, about life, about ourselves. In any half-decent production we emerge from the theatre purged in the Aristotelian sense, but also newly alive to the human mysteries that surround us.
The final C-sharp major triad is one of the most heartrending major chords in all music. Mélisande’s role now passes to her baby daughter. But will all in fact be well? Or will she in her turn perplex and drive to violence those who try to understand her?
Although Pelléas’s biggest impact on 20th-century opera was perhaps a negative one, it was certainly useful: it was now no longer a default position for corpulent persons to bellow unintelligibly. If we count as a loss that Dutilleux has never written an opera because he couldn’t find a narrative style that wasn’t a pale imitation of Debussy’s, one gain has been that Pelléas has educated a public to be more subtle and intelligent in its listening.