241. Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy)

  • Drame lyrique in 5 acts
  • Composer: Claude Debussy
  • Libretto: Maurice Maeterlinck, after his play
  • First performed: Opéra-Comique (3rd salle Favart), 30th April 1902, conducted by André Messager

ARKEL, king of AllemondeBass Félix Vieuille
GENEVIÈVE, his daughter, mother of Pelléas and GolaudContralto Jeanne Gerville-Réache
PELLÉASBaritone-martin Jean Périer
GOLAUD, his half-brotherBaritone Hector-Robert Dufranne
MÉLISANDESoprano Mary Garden
Le petit YNIOLD, son of Golaud’s first marriageSoprano C. Blondin
A doctorBass Viguié
Servants, people, chorus of sailors  

SETTING: The imaginary country of Allemonde, in the legendary Middle Ages.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

“Had you heard it before?” my father asked the ambassador as they came out of La Monnaie. “Good God, no!” His Excellency exploded. “If I had, do you think I’d have gone?”

Not an uncommon reaction to Debussy’s only opera. (Or anti-opera, as W. H. Auden, no fan, called it.) Here is an opera without any set numbers, virtuosic singing, big tunes, or even the showstopping moments and orchestral bombast of Wagner – and in which very little happens. It is a work of half-colours and shadows, quiet (pp) and slow (lent), with almost chamber music-like textures. Those who respond to it (and many do, deeply) respond to its penumbral soundworld and the elusiveness, the unknowability, of its characters. Depending on the conductor, I find it can be a work of shimmering delicacy or an interminable bore, lugubrious and stifling. But it is a landmark in twentieth century opera; as Vincent Giroud remarks, “from then onward there would be a pre-Pelléas and a post-Pelléas era”.

Debussy, that Impressionist iconoclast, did not appreciate opera. “I shall not imitate the follies of the lyric theatre where music insolently predominates and where poetry is relegated to second place,” he wrote. “In the opera house, they sing too much.” He hated classical development, “the beauty of which is entirely technical and can only interest the Mandarins of our class”. He detested grand opéra, “one of the crosses we have to bear, together with such things as epidemics, the three per cent devaluation, and the excavations of the Metro”. The music of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (1836), for instance, was “so strained that even the anxiety to massacre unfortunate Protestants does not altogether excuse it”. And at a time when most young French composers had fallen under the spell of Wagner, he dismissed the master of Bayreuth as a great assembler of formulae, whose style only seemed individual to those who did not know music very well. One must look beyond Wagner, he declared.

Debussy’s own attempts to write a conventional opera came to nothing. In the early 1890s, he composed the first half of Rodrigue et Chimène, with a libretto by Catulle Mendès, who later wrote the texts for Massenet’s Ariane (1906) and Bacchus (1909). But he abandoned it. “My life is hardship and misery, thanks to this opera,” he complained in 1892. “Everything about it is wrong for me.” It was, he told Paul Dukas, “totally at odds with all that I dream about, demanding a type of music that is alien to me”.

“The ideal would be two associated dreams,” Debussy explained to Ernest Guiraud in 1890. “No time, no place. No big scene. … Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome. … 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.”

Debussy found what he sought in Pelléas et Mélisande (1893), a play by the Belgian Symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck. It is a strange, dreamlike work. The story resembles Tristan und Isolde (1865), in that it concerns a love triangle, but all is ambiguous, glimpsed and half-seen rather than stated. Golaud, prince of Allemonde, finds Mélisande, a waif (possibly a nature spirit), weeping in the woods, and marries her. She and Pelléas, the prince’s brother, fall in love; Golaud kills Pelléas, and Mélisande dies in childbirth. To the last, she protests her innocence.

Tableau 1: Mélisande and Golaud. Source: Gallica BNF.

Were Pelléas and Mélisande adulterous lovers, or was theirs only a simple, childlike love? The characters are enigmatic, even to themselves. “Je ne sais pas; je suis perdu aussi,” Golaud remarks at the end of the first scene (“I do not know; I am also lost”). Who and what Mélisande is remains a mystery. Six months after his marriage to Mélisande, Golaud knows as little about Mélisande as on the day he met her: “Je ne sais ni son âge, ni qui elle est, ni d’où elle vient, et je n’ose pas l’interroger” (“I do not know her name, nor who she is, nor where she comes from, and I do not dare to ask”).

“Despite its dreamy atmosphere, this play contains much more humanity than the so-called ‘records of real life’, and seemed to me to suit admirably what I wanted to do,” Debussy explained in a newspaper article (Pourquoi j’ai écrit Pelléas). “There is an evocative language here whose sensitivity could find its extension in the music and in the orchestration. I also tried to obey a law of beauty that people seem to forget when it comes to theatrical music; the characters in this play try to sing like natural people, and not in an arbitrary language made up of outdated traditions.”

Debussy set Maeterlinck’s play with few alterations – setting an example to everyone from Richard Strauss (Salome, 1905) to André Previn (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1995). “Maeterlinck’s poetic prose invited the kind of natural melodic declamation Debussy was looking for – neither aria nor recitative, as well as eschewing both unison and ensemble writing,” Giroud remarks.

Throughout, the singing is almost like conversation, one syllable per note, avoiding the melisma of conventional opera. (Debussy told his cast to forget they were singers.) The arioso, Paul Griffiths notes, “transmits the words but usually remains neutral or ambiguous as to their effect”. The closest the opera comes to an aria is the ballad verse Mélisande sings as she brushes her hair (as she does in Maeterlinck’s play), and there is a fleeting, offstage chorus of sailors.

Tableau 4: Pelléas and Mélisande. Source: Gallica BNF.

The contemporary critic Pierre Lalo (son of the composer of Le roi d’Ys), writing in Le Temps, was struck by its originality: “A rapid, supple, fluid, singsong declamation, very close to the natural inflection of speech; a nuanced, diverse, expressive recitative, always musical, constantly mixed with melodic elements which, in the lyrical passages, take on a more continuous shape, a more prominent line, and loftier development. This song rests on the most subtle, the most sumptuous, the deepest harmonies, on the most poetic and colourful orchestration, which increases its expressive power.”

Debussy composed the score between December 1893 and August 1895. Albert Carré, director of the Opéra-Comique, provisionally accepted it in the spring of 1898, but rehearsals did not begin until 1902.

It was during these rehearsals that Debussy orchestrated the work, and wrote the most musically attractive parts of the score: the post-Parsifalian orchestral interludes, such as the gently rippling start to the fountain scene, or the menacing depths of the caverns.

Tableau 6: The grotto – Mélisande and Pelléas. Source: Gallica BNF.

The dress rehearsal was a “disaster”, the conductor, composer André Messager remembered. Maeterlinck, angered that his mistress, soprano Georgette Leblanc, had not been asked to sing the rôle of Mélisande, may have tried to sabotage the opera. In a letter published in Le Figaro, he called the opera “a work that is strange and hostile to me … I can only wish for its immediate and decided failure.”

The work was a critical success, although many, in fact, loathed it – among them Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré. (“If that’s music, then I never understood what music is,” Fauré said.) Camille Bellaigue thought it contained the germs of decadence and death. Théodore Dubois, director of the Paris Conservatoire, ordered students not to attend.

Arthur Pougin (Le Ménestrel) said that Debussy and his young colleagues believed they were ahead of their time, but they were really behind it. “The public was tired of hearing music that was not music; heavy and continuous declamation, without air or light, or real singing; and unbearable chromaticism. Rhythm, singing, and tonality are unknown to Debussy, and wilfully disdained by him. His music is vague, floating, without colour and shape, without movement and without life. It is not even declamation but a lament, ceaseless and doleful, without nerve and vigour… The orchestration lacks character, with its constantly sustained sounds, its eternal wind instruments: horns, clarinets, and bassoons, without the brilliant, vibrant, and ample sound of violins…”

Debussy (rather smugly) dismissed these criticisms. “The feelings of a character cannot be expressed continuously in a melodic way; besides, dramatic melody must be quite different from melody in general,” he explained. “The people who go to listen to music at the theatre resemble, in fact, those who gather around street singers! There, you can buy melodic emotions for two sous.”

Golaud, Mélisande, Arkel. Source: Gallica BNF.

But others went into raptures. Pierre Lalo called it “the most precious work produced in recent years”; he hoped it would emancipate young artists from the tyranny of Wagner. Romain Rolland deemed it “one of the three or four outstanding achievements in French musical history”. Dukas and Vincent D’Indy also praised it.

And while many audience members complained of “celestial boredom”, the intelligentsia thronged to it. By the fifth performance, Mary Garden recalled, it was a triumph; she likened it to a cathedral. “No one dared to speak, even in the faintest whispers; no one came late.” Hairstyles and costumes à la Pelléas even became a fad.

Pelléas was performed 14 times that year, and remained in the Opéra-Comique’s repertoire, achieving its 100th performance in 1913. While scarcely a popular work, it is a critical darling (even if, as Giroud acknowledges, an élitist one).

These days, Pelléas is seen as the first truly twentieth century opera. Abbate & Parker consider it “a turning point”, “the single most innovative opera to emerge at the fin de siècle”. “Its legacy to 20th century opera,” Griffiths argues, “has been the view that each new work should reconsider the whole nature of the genre,” rather than adopting a conventional musical language. When it premièred, Pierre Lalo was impressed by its novelty, “spontaneous, harmonious, without system or effort”. It was different from all other lyrical dramas and operas: it was not defined by any formulae or conventional label; it was not divided into pieces connected by recitatives, or disguised arias; and, at a time when every opera for the last dozen years had been influenced by Wagner, there was nothing Wagnerian in it: “Neither the dramatic form, nor the musical form, nor the relationship of music to speech, nor that of the voice to the instruments, nor composition and development, nor harmony and orchestra come from Bayreuth.” It was free from all Romanticism, all bombast, hostile to any emphasis, any search for effect, but concerned solely with the precise and faithful expression of the word, the feeling, and the drama. Similarly, André Messager declared: “When Mélisande asks for the window to be opened in the last scene, she lets in not only the sunset but all modern music.”

Tableau 12: Golaud, Mélisande, Pelléas. Source: Gallica BNF.

“I do not pretend to have discovered everything in Pelléas,” Debussy wrote, “but I have tried to clear a path that others can follow, expanding it with personal discoveries which will perhaps rid dramatic music of the heavy constraint in which it has lived for a long time.”

Tableau 13: The death of Mélisande. Source: Gallica BNF.

But it is caviar to the general. It is, Abbate & Parker say, “fundamentally a musician’s opera, and a fastidious musician at that. The piece has little to say to people who like narrative thrust, self-contained arias and the satisfying bray of cadential closure with trumpet and drum. … For some opera-goers to this day, [Pelléas] remains an inexplicable bore, hardly an opera at all, with no great melodies and only a few instances where the orchestra plays at anything approaching full volume.”

Dent considers it a masterpiece, but not a work for the multitude: “Much of it is almost monotone. It is accompanied by vague sounds that seem to have no musical connexion, sounds overheard rather than heard, dim backgrounds of half-suggested feelings. The strain of listening to this rather long opera, almost all in subdued tones, never knowing what the harmonies of the music are, never knowing what the characters are really supposed to be thinking and doing, until at the end Mélisande dies, and the watchers round the bed suddenly fall on their knees, is to some people unbearable.”

It is not an opera I particularly warm to. I am ambivalent about Pelléas’s ambiguities. Sometimes the opera casts a strange spell, I admit. I have heard recordings (Désormière, Fournet) that were intriguing and intimate; I have heard others that bored me rigid (Karajan). For all its innovations, and perhaps because of Debussy’s contempt for opera and popular taste, Pelléas does not quicken the pulse.

« La campagne peut sembler triste avec toutes ces vieilles forêts sans lumière. »

« C’est vrai, on ne voit jamais le ciel ici. »

(“The countryside can seem sad with all these old forests without light.” / “It’s true, you never see the sky here.”)


  • Listen to: Jacques Jansen, Irène Joachim, Henry Etchéverry, Paul Cabanel, Leila Ben Sedira, and Germaine Cernay, with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire Paris, conducted by Roger Désormière, 1942.
  • Camille Maurane, Janine Micheau, Michel Roux, Xavier Depraz, Annick Simon, and Rita Gorr, with the Orchestre Lamoureux conducted by Jean Fournet, 1953. Philips 434 783-2.

Works consulted

  • Arthur Pougin, Le Ménestrel, 4 May 1902
  • Pierre Lalo, Le Temps, 20th May 1902
  • Claude Debussy, “Pourquoi j’ai écrit Pelléas, Comaedia, 17 October 1920
  • Edward J. Dent, Opera, 1940, revised 1949; Penguin, 1965
  • Paul Griffiths, “The Twentieth Century: To 1945”, in Roger Parker (ed.), The Oxford History of Opera, Oxford University Press, 1996
  • Steven Huebner, French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style, Oxford University Press, 1999
  • Martin Kettle, “A fight at the opera”, The Guardian, 26 April 2002
  • Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
  • Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years, Penguin Books 2015
  • Pelléas et Mélisande (opera)”, Wikipedia

11 thoughts on “241. Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy)

  1. Perhaps not an opera for everyone, but personally, when I first saw this live I was simply spellbound and it remains one of my favorite operas (although that comment by Debussy disparaging “Les Huguenots”, another favorite of mine, is very unfortunate).

    Liked by 1 person

      1. At the Met, in 2019, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the following cast:

        Isabel Leonard

        Paul Appleby*

        Kyle Ketelsen

        Ferruccio Furlanetto

        Marie-Nicole Lemieux


      2. Good cast – although I think Pelléas really needs native French speakers. It’s such a textual opera. In a way, I’m surprised it’s spread outside France.


  2. I find it insufferable. There are at least several dozen second-rate operas with better music, and certainly better librettos. I saw this in a gorgeous postmodern production at LA Opera several years ago. I admit I fell asleep several times throughout. Debussy is one of the greatest composers who ever lived. Just not here.

    Liked by 1 person

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