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Claude Debussy

Pelleas and Melisande

"Pelleas and Melisande" by Maeterlinck

Pelléas and Mélisande (French: Pelléas et Mélisande) is a Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) about the forbidden, doomed love of the title characters. It was first performed in 1893.

The work was very popular. It was adapted as an opera by the composer Claude Debussy, and it inspired other contemporary composers, for instance, Gabriel Fauré, Arnold Schoenberg, and Jean Sibelius.

Golaud finds Mélisande by a stream in the woods. She has lost her crown in the water but does not wish to retrieve it. They marry, and she instantly wins the favor of Arkël, Golaud's grandfather and king of Allemonde, who is ill. She falls in love with Pelléas, Golaud's brother. They meet by the fountain, where Mélisande loses her wedding ring. Golaud grows suspicious of the lovers, has his son Yniold spy on them, and discovers them caressing, whereupon he kills Pelléas and wounds Mélisande. She later dies after giving birth to an abnormally small girl.

The main theme is the cycle of creation and destruction. Pelléas and Mélisande form a bond of love, which, step by step, cascades to its fatal end. Maeterlinck had studied Pythagorean metaphysics and believed that human action was guided by Eros (love/sterility) and Anteros (revenge/chaos). The juxtaposition of these two forces brings about a never-ending cycle of calm followed by discord and then change. Pelléas and Mélisande are so much in love that they disregard the value of marriage, provoking the ire of Anteros, who brings revenge and death, which restores order.

Ianish kapoor's stage design for ‘pelléas et mélisande’

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
Glyndebourne, 1999
Director: Graham Vick
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Davis

Pelléas - Richard Croft
Mélisande - Christiane Oelze
Golaud - John Tomlinson
Arkel - Gwynne Howell
Geneviève - Jean Rigby
Yniold - Jake Arditti


Debussy - "Pelléas et Mélisande" - La Scala, 1986

Debussy - "Pelléas et Mélisande" 

Orchestra: Wiener Philharmoniker
-Conductor: Claudio Abbado
-Soloists: Maria Ewing (Mélisande), Francois Le Roux (Pelléas), José van Dam (Golaud), Jean-Philippe Courtis (Arkel; Un Berger), Christa Ludwig (Geneviève), Patrizia Pace (Yniold), Rudolf Mazzola (Le Médecin)
-Choir: Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor

Act I
00:00:08 - Scène 1 - 'Une forêt' [A forest]
00:12:32 - Scène 2 - 'Un appartement dans le château [A room in the castle]
00:21:32 - Scène 3 - 'Devant le château [Before the castle]

Act II
00:28:09 - Scène 1 - 'Une fontaine dans le parc' [A well in the park]
00:38:00 - Scène 2 - 'Un appartement dans le château [A room in the castle]
00:51:04 - Scène 3 - 'Devant une grotte [Before a cave]

00:55:51 - Scène 1 - 'Une des tours du château' [One of the towers of the castle]
01:09:36 - Scène 2 - 'Les souterrains du château' [The vaults of the castle]
01:13:26 - Scène 3 - 'Une terasse au sortir des souterrains' [A terrace at the entrance of the vaults]
01:18:01 - Scène 4 - 'Devant le château [Before the castle]

Act IV
01:27:37 - Scène 1 - 'Un appartement dans le château [A room in the castle]
01:30:24 - Scène 2 - (The same)
01:46:23 - Scène 3 - 'Une fontaine dans le parc' [A well in the park]
01:50:17 - Scène 4 - (The same)

Act V
02:03:35 - 'Une chambre dans le château [A room in the castle]

Claude Debussy

Pelleas and Melisande

When Claude Debussy first met the cast that was to perform his setting of Maeterlinck’s poetic play, Pellas et Melisande, he made a very strange opening remark. He said: “First of all, ladies and gentlemen, you must forget that you are singers.” What he meant, I am sure, is that the music was only one element in the effect he wished to produce. Here there were no set arias, duets, or quartets—not even any high C's to take! There were few melodies one could whistle on the way out. All was done for one purpose: to capture and to project the magical feeling of the sad, highly poetical, almost mystical air of Maeterlinck’s story about a medieval land that never existed.

It was a striking departure from any opera ever staged in France—or anywhere else, for that matter; and it took many months of rehearsal for the singers to master their roles. No wonder, then, that it was misunderstood by most of its first audience! Even today, fifty years later, many first-time listeners find it strange. But as one listens—even for the first time-one inevitably falls under its magical spell. That spell springs from the other-worldly poetic nature of Maeterlinck's play. It is infinitely enhanced by Debussy’s unobtrusive, impressionistic score and marvelously sustained through the quietly eloquent interludes played between the many scenes as the stage sets are changed.



Opera in five acts by Claude Debussy
with libretto in French by Maurice Maeterlinck

Arkel, King of Allemonde
Genevieve, mother of Golaud and Pelléas
Golaud, grandson of Arkel
Pelleas, grandson of Arkel
Yniold, the young son of Golaud 
Offstage sailors (mixed chorus),
serving women and three paupers (mute)

Time: the Middle Ages

Place: a fictional kingdom called Allemonde

First performance at Paris, April 30, 1902



Bass. King of Allemonde, father of Genéviève and grandfather of Golaud and Pelléas. Created (1902) by Feliz Vieuille.

Contralto. Daughter of King Arkel and mother of Golaud and Pelléas by different marriages. Created ( 1902 ) by Jeanne Gerville‐Réache


Baritone. Grandson of King Arkel, halfbrother of Pelléas and father of Yniold from an earlier marriage. He meets Mélisande when he is out hunting and she is wandering about lost. He brings her home and marries her, and introduces her to Pelléas. Golaud is injured when he falls from his horse, and while Mélisande is nursing him, he notices that a ring he gave her is missing from her finger—she has lost it while out with Pelléas. Golaud suspects her of being unfaithful to him with his brother. He uses his young son to spy on them, but Yniold sees nothing untoward. Golaud later finds them together, saying a passionate goodbye to each other, and he kills Pelléas. Created (1902) by Hector Dufranne.


Tenor. Son of Geneviève, grandson of Arkel, and half‐brother of Golaud. Golaud meets and marries Mélisande; she and Pelléas are attracted to each other. Golaud spies on them but can find nothing untoward in their relationship. Pelléas decides to leave the family castle. While he and Mélisande are saying a passionate goodbye, Golaud enters and in a fit of jealousy he kills Pelléas. Aria: Ah! Je respire enfin! (‘Ah! I can breathe at last!‘). Created (1902) by Jean Périer.


Soprano. Found lost in a forest by Golaud, who takes her home and she marries him. She finds his castle gloomy and full of foreboding. She is attracted to his younger half-brother Pelléas, with whom she plays innocent games round a fountain. The ring Golaud gave her falls into the water. She returns home to find her husband was injured at the exact time she lost the ring. Pelléas is leaving and comes to say goodbye to Mélisande, who is combing her long hair. It falls over his face, filling him with passion, but they are interrupted by Golaud. She and Pelléas plan one last meeting, and when Golaud finds them together he kills his brother. Mélisande gives birth to a daughter. She is dying but assures Golaud that she has never been unfaithful to him. Aria: Mes longs cheveux (‘My hair's so long’). Created (1902) by Mary Garden. 


Soprano. Travesti role (but often sung by boy treble). Young son of Golaud from his first marriage. He is used by his father to spy on his second wife, Mélisande, and report on her relationship with Pelléas, Golaud's half‐brother. Yniold sees nothing incriminating to report to his father. Created (1902) by C. Blondin.



Scene 1 After a short prelude, the story begins: Deep in a forest, Prince Golaud has lost his way. Soon he comes on a beautiful girl with long and lovely blond hair, weeping beside a spring of water. Her answers to his questions are vague and mysterious—and childlike, too. She has dropped a golden crown into the spring, but she will not let the prince get it back for her. She seems to be a lost princess, and her name is Melisande. Golaud sees it is growing dark. He does not touch the frightened girl, but he leads her away to find a place of shelter.


Scene 2 And now there is a lovely orchestral interlude as the scene changes to the castle of King Arkel of Allemonde, who is the grandfather of Golaud. Genevieve, the mother of Golaud, is reading a letter from her son. He has married Melisande without the King’s consent, and he fears to return. The letter is addressed to Pelleas, the half brother of Golaud, and it asks Pelleas to find out how Arkel will feel about this marriage. Arkel is forgiving. He tells Pelleas to place a light at the top of the tower of the castle, toward the sea. This will be the signal for Golaud’s return with Melisande.


Scene 3 Once more there is an orchestral interlude, once more a change of scene. It is a darkling garden by the sea. Melisande is unhappy about the constant darkness in and about the castle, but Genevieve assures her one gets used to it. Pelleas joins them, and they watch a ship departing. It is the ship that brought Melisande—and this too makes her sad. And then—at the very end of the scene—Pelleas says that he may leave the next day. Quietly, pathetically, Melisande murmurs, “Oh, why do you leave?” for she already is half in love with her husband’s handsome younger brother.


Scene 1 It is a hot, midsummer day, almost noon, when Melisande and Pelleas find themselves deep in the woods, beside a deserted fountain. Pelleas speaks of the magical qualities the fountain once had, but Melisande scarcely listens. She throws herself down beside the fountain and plays with her hands in the water. “Be careful!” begs Pelteas. But Melisande plays on, and her wedding ring drops into the fountain. They cannot get it back, for the water is too deep. Mllisande is worried, but Pelllas tells her not to be upset. It is time to go back, for it has struck noon. “But what shall we tell Golaud?” asks Melisande. “The truth, the truth,” murmurs her brother-in-law.


Scene 2 And then, after the orchestral interlude, the scene changes to Golaud’s room. He is in bed, for just at noon (when Melisande had dropped her ring into the water), his horse had shied and thrown him. Melisande is by his side, and he tries to comfort her by telling her his wounds are not serious. Still, she is troubled; she cannot say why, except that it is always so dark. Tenderly he takes his young wife’s hands in his—and notices that the ring is gone. Suddenly he is afraid, and angry. She tries to avoid his questions and finally says that she lost it in a grotto by the sea—that she was there with little Yniold, Golaud’s son by an earlier marriage. It must be found, insists Golaud; Pelleas will go with her. “Pelleas? Pelleas?” she cries. But Golaud insists; and as Melisande leaves, she weeps: “Oh, oh! I am not happy!”


Scene 3 Once more an interlude, once more a change of scene. It is dark, and the orchestra seems to describe the mysterious grotto by the sea. That sea does not sound happy tonight, says Pelleas to Melisande—and suddenly the moon comes from behind a cloud. In the light they see three white-haired beggars sleeping against a rock. Little Melisande is frightened; she wants to leave quickly. “We shall come back another day,” says Pelleas.


Scene 1 Melisande is at her window, combing her long, golden hair, and singing an ancient ditty. Up the path comes Pelleas and stops beneath Melisande’s tower. He tells her he must leave on the morrow, but Melisande begs him not to. She will not let him kiss her hand unless he says he will not leave. So Pelleas promises to wait. She leans out to reach him her hand, and her long tresses tumble over him. Passionately he kisses them as he cries that he will not let them go. Some frightened doves fly away—and suddenly Golaud comes up the path. Nervously he laughs; he calls them “children”; he says they must not play there in the dark—and he leads away his half brother, Pelleas.


Scene 2 The music of the interlude grows darker, more ominous. Into a subterranean passage of the castle Golaud leads Pelleas. He calls attention to the smell of death there; he points to the dangerous abyss; and Pelleas understands his warning. “I am stifling here,” he says miserably as the two brothers leave the unpleasant place.


Scene 3 The music grows lighter again as they come out, and Pelleas is happier. But Golaud warns him more directly. He says he saw what happened beneath M61isande's window, and from now on Pelleas must avoid his sister-in-law—only, not too obviously. For Melisande must not be worried; she may soon be a mother.


Scene 4 Golaud is before the castle with little Yniold. He questions the child about Pelleas and Melisande. “What do they speak about?” he asks. “About me,” says the child. “Do they kiss each other?” But Yniold only kisses his father by way of answer. The man becomes tense and the child is frightened. Suddenly there is a light in Melisande’s room above. Golaud makes Yniold climb up and spy for him. He asks questions; but all the child can see is Pelleas and Melisande standing quietly, looking at each other. Suddenly the frightened child cries that he is afraid he will scream if he must stay there; and the frustrated, tormented father leads him away. The final sounds of the orchestra suggest the harsh torment of the man.


Scene 1 Pelleas is with Melisande and, in a very restrained scene, he begs for a rendezvous near the fountain. Now—almost ironically—there is a long, quiet soliloquy by old King ArkdL Impressed by the simple beauty of Melisande, he says how much he believes that youth and beauty make everything turn out happily. He could not, of course, be further wrong in this tragic story.

Soon Golaud appears. His head is wounded, but he refuses to let Melisande bandage it for him. And when Arkel remarks on the innocence in Melisande’s eyes, Golaud works himself up into a rage. He demands that she bring him his sword; and when she has fetched it, he seizes her by her long, golden hair. Violently he drags her along the floor—to the right, to the left—but M61isande utters no word of protest. Finally, Arkel intercedes, and Golaud leaves in anger. Then, only, does Melisande speak: “He loves me no longer,” she says. “I am not happy.” And the scene ends with Arkel's profoundly moving sentence: “If I were God,” he says, “I should take pity on the hearts of men.”


Scene 2 Now there is an especially eloquent interlude. By the fountain in the park little Yniold is playing, looking for his lost golden ball. A flock of bleating sheep passes by, and suddenly they are silent. “Why do they no longer speak?” asks the little boy. “Because they are not on the right road home,” answers a shepherd. All this, of course, is a kind of symbolic commentary on the unhappy situation of Yniold's elders. It is a poetic scene usually omitted from stage performances, and ends with Yniold's running off. He sees it is growing dark and feels he must—as he says—“say something to someone.”


Now Pelleas is dead, slain by his brother Golaud. But Melisande is hardly aware of it. She has been found; she has given birth to a child; and she lies, dying, in bed. Old King Arkel is with her; so is Golaud; so is the doctor, who gives the old, hopeless, helpless professional encouragement. Golaud is full of remorse—and yet he is still jealous and tortured by uncertainty. He asks to be left alone with his young wife, and he torments her with questions. Did she love Pelleas? Of course, the girl answers simply. Were they guilty? No, says Melisande. But her answers, her whole speech is so vague—so otherworldly in its quality—that Golaud can never feel sure. And when Arkel and the doctor return, Melisande once more—as she had done before—complains of the cold, the darkness. They bring her the baby girl, and Melisande says simply, “She is little . . . She too will weep ... I pity her.” Everyone feels the approach of death as the servants of the house file quietly into the room. Once more Golaud brutally demands the truth, but Arkel intervenes. It is too late to disturb the dying girl, and her soul passes from the earth. Slowly, Arkel leads the sobbing Golaud from the room. “It was not your fault,” he says. And finally, turning to the baby, he tells her that she must live to take the place of Melisande.


Scene 3 Then Pelleas comes to the fountain for his rendezvous with Melisande. He is determined to run off from his hopeless, guilty love; but when she joins him, he inevitably tells her that he loves her. It is the first open declaration he has made, and Melisande responds simply and truthfully: she, too, has loved him ever since she first saw him. The love scene works softly to a climax. In the distance is heard the closing of the palace gates, and the lovers sense that fate has overtaken them. And now, in the darkness, they feel—and then they hear—the approaching footsteps of Golaud. He has a sword in his hand. Desperately the lovers embrace. Pelleas begs Melisande to flee with him, but she will not. Quickly, without uttering a word, Golaud strikes Pelleas down. Little Melisande flees into the dark woods, crying, “Oh, oh! I have no courage!" Golaud runs after her, into the woods.

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