Composed in 1902 to a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck, Pelléas et Mélisande Pelléas et Mélisande is the only completed opera by Debussy. Inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde and the character of Rapunzel in Brothers Grimm, Pelléas et Mélisande tells of the impossible love between Pelléas and Mélisande who is married to Pelléas’ eldest brother.  

Robert Wilson's Pelléas et Mélisande, Opéra National de Paris © E. Mahoudeau
Robert Wilson's Pelléas et Mélisande, Opéra National de Paris
© E. Mahoudeau

But Debussy's opera is primarily a confusing work that challenges the audience. Deliberately at odds with the vocal and symphonic conventions of opera, Pelléas et Mélisande seeks to overturn conventions in order to return to the essence of this art. The impressionist music of Debussy is therefore part of a quest for purity and symbolism, often including songs without melody or theme which reflect a character's soul and operate independently of the orchestral score.

The style of writing of the libretto adds to the overall lack of clarity. The opera, based on the Maeterlinck play of the same name, is a symbolist work par excellence, and in its style is both Gothic and dreamy. The novella is a prose in dialogue that mixes the mundane ("I was born on a Sunday. A Sunday at noon." Mélisande Act III, "I opened the window, it's too hot in the tower." Melisande, Act III) with the fantastical ("How large are our shadows tonight!" Mélisande Act IV, "Can you feel the rising smell of death?" Melisande, Act III).

However,Pelléas et Mélisande However, Pelléas et Mélisande is a work both of its time and of all time. This opera shocked with its first performances and yet was part of a trend harking back with affection to the medieval characteristics of the late nineteenth century which tended to emphasize the influence of Celtic, Germanic and Nordic tradition within Western culture. Romantic nationalism, with emblematic representatives like Akseli Gallen-Kallela, painted illustrations for legends such as for the Kalevala, the Finnish mythology, which sought to bring up to date the medieval folklore and Arthurian legends, as did the Symbolist painters Edgard Maxence and Puvis de Chavannes.  

Laurent Pelly's Pelléas et Mélisande, Theater an der Wien, Natalie Dessay © Armin Bardel
Laurent Pelly's Pelléas et Mélisande, Theater an der Wien, Natalie Dessay
© Armin Bardel

In music too there are references to a medieval flowering with Wagnerian opera(Tristan and Isolde, , The Ring of the Nibelungen, ...…) but also Le Roi Arthus, by Ernest Chausson, and many composers who made use of their national folk melodies such as Jean Sibelius and Bartók. Even today, the ethereal voice of Mélisande that ignores the orchestral score and the distant echo of symphonic writing touches us deeply and brings us back to the sources of operatic art.

The productions of such a rich and complex work are many and varied in their interpretation. Some remain faithful to the book and the gothic atmosphere, such as the staging of Pelléas et Mélisande by Jonathan Miller for the Met in 2010. 

Other productions deviate more to emphasize different aspects of Pelléas et Mélisande, such as a fascinating adaptation by minimalist Robert Wilson, co-produced in 2012 by the Paris Opera and the Salzburg Festival, which plays on the symbolism of the work. The stage is plunged in a bluish darkness. The characters neither look at, nor touch each other (sometimes in spite of the text!). And the iconic hair of Mélisande is only referred to by jest on stage.. With our concentration on solely this facet of the opera, this esoteric adaptation perfectly symbolizes the inability of the characters to communicate with each other.

Johnathan Miller's Pelléas et Mélisande, Metropolitan Opera © Marty Sohl
Johnathan Miller's Pelléas et Mélisande, Metropolitan Opera
© Marty Sohl

Another brilliant interpretation by Laurent Pelly at the Theater an der Wien in 2009 was a poetic and feminine production which brought together Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri. Transposed to the start of the twentieth century, when the opera was composed, the production depicted a bourgeois society in a setting which clearly evoked the world of Stefan Zweig. Mélisande embodied the introverted woman, melancholic and fragile, shaken by a violent passion, echoing the heroine of theReise in die Vergangenheit

So we will discover the newest adaptations of this timeless opera very soon, and in particular the brand new production by Christophe Honoré Opéra de Lyon next season!


Translation from French by Alison Karlin.