Pelléas et Mélisande, Claude Debussy

“The century of aeroplanes deserves a music of its own”, announced the French composer Claude Debussy as he set about creating a new musical language at the close of the 19th century, reaching a sensual ambience in his orchestral rejection of German symphonic form and melodic development. At the Paris Conservatory, he was accused of “vague impressionism”; his departure from rigid tonality embraced timeless modality, chromatic liberation and melodic expanse. Dissonant expression, unresolved chords and whole-tone and pentatonic scales all added to the delicate gauze of sound.

Whilst classical music critic Alex Ross begins his epic survey of the 20th century, The Rest Is Noise, with Richard Strauss’ Salome, Debussy’s only complete opera Pelléas et Mélisande – which received its premier in 1902 – holds equal symbolic weight, standing at the edge of centuries. Debussy took his libretto from the Belgian Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play – an adulterous tragedy where the timeless narrative, open to perpetual interpretation, never makes clear any sexual detail: Prince Golaud discovers Mélisande lost in a forest, marries her and returns to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. Mélisande’s attachment to Golaud’s half-brother Pelléas spirals into increasing jealousy with Golaud rushing to kill his brother as he confesses his love with Mélisande. As Golaud repeatedly begs her for “the truth”, Mélisande dies after giving birth to a daughter.

Debussy’s direct setting of Maeterlinck’s prose text, his rejection of set-pieces and use of silent expression – all bathed in half-light – was highly influential on the history of 20th century opera. But even from its premiere, Pelléas has never sat comfortably; the orchestra complained that the score was “unplayable, outrageous” while the audience thought of its abstraction as “celestial boredom”.

Pelléas’ problems have always been rooted in its tortuous relationship with 19th century Wagnerian opera and its heightened drama, orchestral intensity, perpetual melody and use of leitmotifs (repeated musical ideas). Pelléas resonates both musically and textually – in its use of mythic beauty, the fatalistic, the forbidden and the symbolic – with Wagnerian tradition. And yet Debussy’s orchestra is far more shaded, his music pursues natural speech rhythms – reaching almost the negative aesthetic of the modernists.

Auden described Pelléas as “one of the great anti-operas” and in many ways, that’s a perfect description for Debussy’s shift from the maximalism of Wagnerian opera. Pelléas rejects symphonic artificiality and instead seeks the internal musicality and drama of the human voice. Vocal declamation of the text, approaching the fluidity of chant, looks towards clarity rather than high emotion. Debussy’s orchestral diminution above all stressed instrumental colour over volume – at the central climax as Pelléas professes his love, the orchestra is silent with Mélisande’s reply. Interrupted musical lines build a sonic impression of the opera as a shaded surface, fractured only by voice. The discomforting ambivalence in unresolved harmony, modal pull, whole-tone scales and chromatic suggestion all work against the operatic ideal.

Below is a recording of Pelléas et Mélisande accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Stretching to two and a half hours, this five-act opera hardly lends itself to a compressed listening guide. I have picked out a couple of moments to look for in this highly claustrophobic, shadowy sound-world.

ACT I opens with a softly spoken orchestral prelude in muted cellos and double-basses, spinning out a series of themes – sparse, vaporous tones perfectly set up the otherworldly forest scene where Golaud encounters Mélisande, singing in fragmented melody. The act closes as elusively as it begins with 27:15 the first time Mélisande addresses a direct question to Pelléas.

ACT II begins with Pelléas bringing Mélisande to the Blind Men’s Well– floating flute lines and harp arpeggiation creating a liquidity in the texture. This forms the crux of the opera, with Mélisande losing her ring and so setting Golaud’s jealousy in motion – he orders her to search for it, leading to the cavern scene 23:00 where orchestral colour floods in, fed by blooming harp glissandos (in contrast to the claustrophobia of the opening forest scene).

ACT III opens with Mélisande’s song in the tower – the only point where she is alone. The emphasis is on phrase patterns, with her song shaped not by music but by syllabic flow. By 22:15 Golaud’s jealousy is open and through accumulated, unresolved orchestral tension, the music here forms a crescendo into the terrifying passage at 31:20 where the string section plays ‘sul pont’ (near the bridge of the instrument).

ACT IV increases the psychological agitation, with Golaud’s outburst at 8:40, and Debussy’s interlude at 14:58 opening into full orchestral climaxes. 31:58 sees the opera’s culmination as the lovers spot Golaud – achieving musical orgasm in accelerating instrumental rhythm, orchestral release and the ecstasy of vocal phrasing.

ACT V brings the servants’ entrance at 15:24 in muted conclusion, with the emotional flow disrupted by sonic bursts.

The performance above belongs to Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon. A completely different performance can be found in Karajan’s post-romantic approach on his EMI recording.

To explore further Debussy’s subtle orchestral hues, his short ballet, Jeux, is seen by many as an even fuller expression of his avant-garde sound-world. Another piece in the Maeterlinck repertoire is Arnold Schoenberg’s 1903 symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisande – stretching both tonality and texture, the piece originally started as an opera.

Artwork: A set design from 1953, Dmitri Bouchene

by En Liang Khong