This coming August 22nd, Claude Debussy would have turned 150. I plan to mark the occasion with a trio of OTF posts this month. This is the second post of this series.

Pelléas et Mélisande is an opera in five acts and 12 «tableaux» which Debussy himself preferred to refer to as a lyric drama (« drame lyrique »). The libretto is by Maurice Maeterlinck after his play of the same name. It premiered in Paris at the t Opéra-Comique on 30 April 1902 (110 years ago).

The play has been the basis of several pieces of music. In 1898, Gabriel Fauré had written incidental music for performances of the play in London and asked Charles Koechlin to orchestrate it, from which he later extracted a suite. The story inspired Arnold Schoenberg's early symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande of 1902-03. Jean Sibelius also wrote incidental music for it in 1905.

The opera, as was the play, is Maeterlinck’s adaptation of the myth of Tristan and Isolde: two young people, irresistiblky in love with each other – a forbidden love, as there is an aging and jealous husband in the mix. Thsu, this love can oly lead to the tragic death of the lovers.

In Debussy’s own words (my translation): « I wanted that the action never stop, that it be continuous and uninterrupted. The melodies are anti-lyrical, powerless in expressing the motion of souls and of life. It was never my intention that the music force or refrain the flow of the feelings and of the passions of my characters due to any sort of technical requirement. It simply disappears if it is in the way of their movements, emotions, cries or pain»

For the premiere, Debussy insisted that the role of Mélisande be sung by the Scottish soprano Mary Garden (1877-1967), sa decision supported by Opéra-Comique director Albert Carré. Maerterlinck wished his mistress, Georgette Leblanc be chosen – a move which caused a rift between the two collaborators.

Created 10 years after the play, the initial reception was not what Debussy had hoped. The chaos in the hall was such that the cops had to come and calm things down! The conductor, André Messager breaks down in tears. Debussy locks himself up in the Opera dircector’s office!

Composer Vincent d'Indy will write : « This music will not survive, because it lacks form. »
The atonal nature of the music will, indeed, stand the test of time. Debussy declares : « With 24 half-tones in one octave, there will always be ambiguous chords that belong to 36 tones all at the same time. »

Opera Summary

Golaud, out hunting in the forest, loses his way. Hearing the sound of weeping, he finds Mélisande and persuades her to come home with him. In Arkel's castle, Geneviève reads a letter from Golaud, confessing his marriage to Mélisande and seeking forgiveness. Pelléas is refused permission to join his dying friend Marcellus, since his father is also near to death. In the third scene Pelléas and Mélisande meet outside the castle. In the second act Pelléas is showing Mélisande the castle grounds. They sit by the side of a shady fountain, where, as the clock strikes midday, she drops the ring that Golaud had given her. In the castle Golaud is resting. At midday his horse had thrown him. He notices that Mélisande no longer wears the ring he gave her, and angrily tells her that she must find it, with the help of Pelléas. In the following scene Pelléas and Mélisande enter the cave where she has told Golaud she had lost the ring. They find paupers sleeping there, and quietly leave. In the third act Mélisande, at the window of a tower in the castle, is combing her hair for the night. Pelléas comes to the foot of the tower, from where he can fondle her hair. Golaud emerges, to upbraid them for their childishness. He leads Pelléas down to a disused well in the castle vaults, where a slip would be fatal. When they emerge he openly tells Pelléas to avoid the company of Mélisande. At night in front of the castle, Golaud makes his son Yniold stand on his shoulders and tell him what he sees in Mélisande's chamber. He sees her there with Pelléas. Pelléas, in the fourth act, has been warned that he must leave. Before he goes, he seeks to meet Mélisande by the Fountain of the Blind. Arkel is moved by the beauty of Mélisande and is shocked when Golaud, in his presence, speaks angrily to her. In the park, Yniold questions a shepherd, before running off. Pelléas and Mélisande meet and avow their love for each other, observed by Golaud, who kills Pelléas and wounds Mélisande. In the final act Mélisande, in a chamber in the castle, is recovering from her wounds. She gives birth to a baby girl, but dies, leaving the child to live in her place.

Synopsis @

About the performance

Perhaps the definitive recording of Debussy's only opera, this is the first complete recording of Pelléas et Mélisande; the sessions took place in the salle de l’ancien Conservatoire, Paris, from 24 April to 26 May 1941, during the Nazi occupation, with the 20-record set being issued in January 1942. (More info @

Claude DEBUSSY (1862 –1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande, drame lyrique en 5 actes et 12 tableaux, L. 88
Jacques Jansen Pelléas
Irène Joachim Mélisande
Henri Etcheverry Golaud
Germaine Cernay Geneviève
Paul Cabanel Arkel
Leila Ben Sedira Yniold
Emile Rousseau Le berger
Armand Narçon Le médecin

Choeurs Yvonne Gouverne
Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire Roger Désormière conductor
Recorded at Salle de l’ancien Conservatoire, Paris on 12, 17, 19, 20, 25 & 26 May; 8 October, 16 & 18 November, 1941.

French Libretto :

Performance URL:

Dont forget to follow my two summer series: The Summer of the Sonata on TalkClassical and MQCD Musique Classique) every Tuesday this Summer and The Great Escape on the ITYWLTMT Friday Blog and Podcast.