Opera: Pelleas Et Melisande – Claude Debussy

“Pelleas and Melisande” a lyric drama in five acts with music by Claude Debussy and text after the play of Maurice Maeterlinck, was first presented in Paris.


Arkel, king of Germany. Genevieve, mother of Pelleas and of Golaud. Pelleas, Goland, grandchildren of Arkel. Melisande. Little Yniold, a son of Golaud by a former marriage. A physician. Servants, poor people.

In a forest, Golaud, recovering from wounds received while hunting, finds the young girl Melisande, sobbing by the edge of a shadowy pool. She repulses him when he approaches her and evades his questions. When, how-ever, he asks her what is gleaming in the depths of the water she tells him it is a crown which has fallen from her head. He offers to restore it to her but she insists that in that case she will take its place. Goland has no more idea of his whereabouts than Melisande has of hers, but after much difficulty he convinces her of the danger of remaining in the forest unprotected and the two lost ones depart together, as the curtain of the first scene falls.

Six months are supposed to have elapsed before the second scene. The action passes in a room in the castle. Genevieve reads to the king a letter from Golaud to his brother Pelleas, containing the information that he has married the unknown girl, Melisande. He urges his brother to intercede for him with his grandfather, who had hoped to marry him to the Princess Ursula to terminate a feud. In case a welcome is forthcoming, Pelleas is to place a lamp in the tower overlooking the sea. Arkel is inclined to be lenient to the formerly exemplary Golaud, who since the death of his first wife, has lived only for his little son Yniold.

Genevieve comes to greet Melisande, who exclaims at the gloom of the garden. Pelleas joins them, too. He speaks of the tempest which is brewing over the sea. Melisande sees a light gleaming through the mists. It is the beacon of Arkel. They talk dreamily of the spectral ships, of the falling of the night. Pelleas offers his hand to help her down the rocks. She laughs, for hers are full of flowers. He steadies her arm. Perhaps I shall go away tomorrow,” he says as if to himself. ” O, why are you going away,” says Melisande regretfully, as the curtain of the first act goes down.

In the second act, Pelleas leads Melisande to a fountain in the park, a fountain deep as the sea, a once miraculous fountain whose waters could cure the blind. Melisande leans over it, her wonderful, long hair trailing upon its surface and plays with the wedding-ring which Golaud has given her. Just as the clock strikes noon it slips from her fingers into the depths. In the next scene we find that at that instant Golaud’s horse has taken unaccountable fright in the forest and has thrown him violently to the ground. Melisande attends him, and her tears bring him to inquire their cause. She confesses that she is wretchedly unhappy and he takes her hand to comfort her, the little hand he could crush like flowers. ” Hold ! where is the ring? ” he exclaims.

He questions her in agitation. He would rather have lost everything he owned than the ring. He bids her call Pelleas and she goes forth sobbing to search with him in the inky grotto, where they find three white-haired old beggars, sleeping side by side. The search proves futile and they promise themselves to resume it another day.

The third act finds Melisande standing at her window in the tower singing and combing her unbound hair. Pelleas comes by. He tells her of the beauty of the night. The stars are innumerable. He never has seen so many. ” Do not stay hidden in the shadow, Melisande,” he pleads. He begs her to lean out that he may see the glory of her hair. Will she not put her little hand upon his lips in farewell? Tomorrow he goes away. She will not give her hand to him unless he promises not to go.

Ah, then he will wait. She leans out and her loosened hair falls about him in a shower. He grasps the silken strands in his hands and twines them about his arms and his throat, threatening to hold her thus a prisoner all night long. She urges him to run away for some one will come. Some one does come. It is Golaud. ” What children you are,” he laughs, nervously. ” Melisande, do not lean out of the window in that fashion. You are going to fall.”

That Golaud’s jealousy has been growing is proved in a dramatic scene between him and the little Yniold. The father, half ashamed, questions the child as to his uncle and stepmother. ” Pelleas is always with her, is he not? ” ” Yes,” the child answers, always when his father is not there. The lamps are lighted in Melisande’s apartment. Golaud lifts the child to peer through the windows his own eyes cannot reach. The child bursts into tears at the unconscious cruelty of his grasp. Never minci, he shall have presents on the morrow.

Ah ! his uncle Pelleas is there with his mother. They do not speak; they do not move; their eyes frighten him. He must get down or he will cry.

In the fourth act, the wan Pelleas is ordered away on a voyage. Golaud comes in with blood upon his fore-head and, when Melisande attempts to wipe it off, he repulses her. He demands his sword and, turning fiercely upon his grandfather, bids him say what he finds in Melisande’s eyes. ” Only a great innocence,” responds the patriarch. At this, Golaud turns in a passion of ironic fury and, seizing his wife by the hair, drags her to her knees.

Melisande who has made a hazardous flight from her lord, meets Pelleas in the forest. In the midst of their rapture they hear the sound of the castle gates closing for the night. Golaud tracks them and strikes with his sword the defenseless Pelleas, who falls over the edge of the fountain, while Melisande flees through the darkness.

In Act IV Melisande is dying in the castle. Golaud, still mad with jealousy, implores her to tell him whether her love for Pelleas was guiltless. She answers “yes” and he raves that he would have further assurance.

They bring in her baby, but she is too weak to lift her arms to take her. As her spirit takes its flight, the servants fall on their knees, the sobs of Golaud break the silence, and Arkel, wise and calm, bids them leave the little dead mother with her child.

The Debussy setting is in the most modern music-drama manner, with nothing of set solos or ensembles which can be singled out as special features of the musical score. The French composer is a master in the handling of orchestral color and he has made his music merely a tonal commentary and illustration of the Maeterlinck drama.