- 30 Mar 2013
Pelléas et Mélisande
Act I: “Prélude” and “Je ne pourrai plus sortir de cette forêt”
Claude Debussy. Libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck.
Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera.
Conduction: Pierre Boulez.
Staging and direction: Peter Stein.
Golaud…….. Donald Maxwell
Mélisande….. Alison Hagley
“Pelléas et Mélisande” (“Pelléas and Mélisande”) is an opera in five acts with music by Claude Debussy. The French libretto was adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande. It premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 30 April 1902 with Jean Périer as Pelléas and Mary Garden as Mélisande in a performance conducted by André Messager, who was instrumental in getting the Opéra-Comique to stage the work. The only opera Debussy ever completed, it is considered a landmark in 20th-century music.
The plot concerns a love triangle. Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her back to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. Here Mélisande becomes increasingly attached to Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas, arousing Golaud’s jealousy. Golaud goes to excessive lengths to find out the truth about “Pelléas and Mélisande”’s relationship, even forcing his own child, Yniold, to spy on the couple. Pelléas decides to leave the castle but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time and the two finally confess their love for one another. Golaud, who has been eavesdropping, rushes out and kills Pelléas. Mélisande dies shortly after, having given birth to a daughter, with Golaud still begging her to tell him “the truth”.
“Pelléas et Mélisande” received its first performance at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 30 April 1902 with André Messager conducting. The sets were designed in the Pre-Raphaelite style by Lucien Jusseaume and Eugène Ronsin. The premiere received a warmer reception than the dress rehearsal because a group of Debussy aficionados counterbalanced the Opéra-Comique’s regular subscribers, who found the work so objectionable. Messager described the reaction: “[It was] certainly not a triumph, but no longer the disaster of two days before…From the second performance onwards, the public remained calm and above all curious to hear this work everyone was talking about…The little group of admirers, Conservatoire pupils and students for the most part, grew day by day…”
Critical reaction was mixed. Some accused the music of being “sickly and practically lifeless” and of sounding “like the noise of a squeaky door or a piece of furniture being moved about, or a child crying in the distance.” Camille Saint-Saëns, a relentless opponent of Debussy’s music, claimed he had abandoned his customary summer holidays so he could stay in Paris and “say nasty things about Pelléas.” But others — especially the younger generation of composers, students and aesthetes — were highly enthusiastic. Debussy’s friend Paul Dukas lauded the opera, Romain Rolland described it as “one of the three or four outstanding achievements in French musical history”, and Vincent d’Indy wrote an extensive review which compared the work to Wagner and early-17th-century Italian opera. D’Indy found Pelléas moving, too: “The composer has in fact simply felt and expressed the human feelings and human sufferings in human terms, despite the outward appearance the characters present of living in a dream.” The opera won a “cult following” among young aesthetes, and the writer Jean Lorrain satirised the “Pelléastres” who aped the costumes and hairstyles of Mary Garden and the rest of the cast.