Pelléas et Mélisande
The “dreamlike atmosphere” of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande inspired Claude Debussy to write his only opera, since it “contains far more humanity than any of the so-called realistic dramas.” Debussy was the first composer to set an existing work of literature to music instead of a text written specifically as a libretto. In Pelléas et Mélisande he created a quiet, musical drama whose power lies in the inexpressible rather than grand gestures or even pathos.
Pelléas and Golaud, two half-brothers and grandsons of King Arkel, live with their mother Geneviève and their grandfather in an old castle. One day Golaud loses his way in the woods and encounters Mélisande, who declines to disclose anything about her past. Golaud falls in love with the mysterious stranger and persuades her to marry him. They return together to the castle, where Mélisande is beset by despondency and isolation. Under the watchful gaze of Golaud, feelings of affection develop between her and Pelléas that grow ever deeper. Golaud surprises them as they are confessing their love, and kills Pelléas in a fit of jealousy. After Mélisande gives birth to a child, the bleakness of her situation sends her into a decline and she dies.
Maeterlinck’s text is full of ramified connotations and encourages constant reinterpretation. Debussy’s music echoes this and plays with musical images and symbols. One result of this is that the chased music can be compared to impressionist painting, in which the overall image is composed of a large number of individual coloured dots. The music is not passionate but more like a kind of enormous recitative that, significantly, ceases altogether at the moment of the terse yet ardent confession of love: “Je t’aime” – “Je t’aime aussi”.