Classical Music | Orchestral Music

Claude Debussy

Pelléas et Mélisande  Play

Royal Opera House Orchestra
Pierre Boulez Conductor
Donald McIntyre Bass
Elisabeth Söderström Soprano
George Shirley Tenor

Recorded on 01/01/1970, uploaded on 08/20/2012

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

Much like Beethoven before him, Claude Debussy composed only a solitary opera during his entire career—Pelléas et Mélisande. However, in Debussy’s case, it was not for lack of trying that only one opera would come to fruition. Several false starts were made prior to Debussy’s decision to set Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, and others followed after it. These first attempts failed primarily because of uninspired libretti, as in his aborted opera Rodrigue et Chimène, which Debussy himself admitted was completely contrary to his vision for a French opera. Even the composer’s own struggle to completely distance himself from the Wagnerian tradition, which he nonetheless admired, was likely a factor in his inability to complete any one of the projects he had begun in the 1880s. On the other hand, his efforts to compose a second opera were largely hindered by health problems. Among the most notable of these efforts are adaptations of two Edgar Allan Poe short stories, and a rather full-scale assault on the Germanic operatic tradition with planned settings of the tale of Orpheus, most famously treated by Gluck, and even the legend of Tristan and Isolde, a broadside of Wagner’s most novel and groundbreaking stage work. It is easy to regret that Debussy did not complete even one of these projects, and the mind can wonder with what striking originality he would have treated these stories already so well-known by the efforts of Gluck and Wagner. Yet, we may also wonder that had these works materialized, would Pelléas et Mélisande remain the unique and inspiring work in the composer’s oeuvre that we perceive it as today.

After several fruitless attempts to find a libretto to match his ideal opera, Debussy found new hope to fulfill his passion for creating a work for the theater when he encountered the works of the Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. Initially, he requested permission to set Maeterlinck’s La princesse Maleine, but Maeterlinck had already granted it to Vincent d’Indy. Debussy’s sights then fell on Pelléas et Mélisande, a play set vaguely in the Middle Ages and concerning a tragic love triangle. Maeterlinck enthusiastically granted Debussy permission to set the play, though later on problems would arise and an eventual falling-out would occur between the two over who would perform the role of Mélisande. With permission from Maeterlinck, Debussy opted in favor of crafting the libretto himself directly from Maeterlinck’s play, cutting a few scenes and leaving the text in its original prose form. While Russian composers had already experimented with setting prose text in an opera, this concept of a libretto was practically unprecedented in France. Nonetheless, with supple skill Debussy molded Maeterlinck’s prose to music, and it is indeed the text that is one of the striking features of the opera.

Despite Maeterlinck’s attempts to halt the production of Pelléas et Mélisande over his feud with Debussy, the opera premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on April 30, 1902. Its reception was rather mixed. The regular subscribers of the Opéra-Comique were put off by Debussy’s unorthodox work, yet enough supporters of his music attended the premiere to counterbalance their negative reaction. Likewise, critical reception was mixed. Some accused it of being a “sickly” piece and Camille Saint-Saëns, who was a staunch opponent of Debussy, remained in Paris simply to attack Pelléas. On the other hand, fellow composers Paul Dukas and Vincent d’Indy, as well as a younger generation of emerging musicians, lauded the work as a pinnacle of French opera. Following its premiere, Pelléas et Mélisande became a staple of the Opéra-Comique repertoire. In 1907, it received its international premiere in Brussels. The following year, it premiered in both New York and at La Scala, and then London in 1909.      Joseph DuBose