An Introduction to Debussy's Pélleas et Mélisande

Dip into Debussy's otherwordly opera about love, desire and power

Mary Garden as Pelléas
Published: February 22, 2019 at 4:18 pm

Debussy's setting of Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pelléas et Mélisande remains today as groundbreaking as it was when it was premiered in Paris in 1902. Even the late Henri Dutilleux never wrote an opera for fear of producing simply a pale imitation of Debussy's masterpiece.

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Pelléas et Mélisande is a mysterious creation – plot-wise it remains elusive, and never before had music and words so effectively and magically combined; Debussy's vocal writing pays more than a passing homage to plainchant. During rehearsals, the composer instructed his cast to 'forget you are singers.'

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This colourised photograph features Scottish soprano Mary Garden, who premiered the role of Mélisande, kitted out for the part. It was taken in 1902 around the time of the first performance at Paris's Opéra-Comique. Garden was a big hit with Debussy, even if her pronunciation was on the dodgy side…

Authors

Oliver CondyFormer Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Oliver Condy is the former Editor of BBC Music Magazine, a post he held for 17 years. His debut book, Symphonies of the Soul: Classical Music to Cure Any Ailment, will be released in November 2021 with Octopus Books. He is also a semi-professional organist, having previously given recitals in Bach’s churches across Germany.

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