World premiere: 30 April 1902, Opéra Comique, Paris
Premiere in Russia: 19 October 1915, Musical Drama Theatre, Petrograd (performed in Russian, translated by M.V.)
Premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre: 13 April 2012
Premiere of this production: 24 October 2019, Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre
Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes
The performance has one intervals
Music by Claude Debussy
Libretto by the composer after the play by Maurice Maeterlinck
Musical Director: Valery Gergiev
Stage Director and Costume Designer: Anna Matison
Production Designers: Marsel Kalmagambetov, Anna Matison
Lighting Designer: Alexander Sivayev
Choreographer: Sergei Zemlyansky
Make-Up Designer: Maria Morzunova
Computer graphic: Alexander Kravchenko
French Language Coaches: Ksenia Klimenko
Principal Chorus Master: Konstantin Rylov
Musical Preparation: Natalia Mordashova
A dark forest in a faraway land. Prince Golaud, hunting a trail of blood, discovers a frightened, weeping girl sitting by a spring. Taken by her beauty and mystery, Golaud persuades her to come with him out of the forest.
The castle in Allemonde. Geneviève, the mother of Golaud, reads a letter to the aged King Arkel. In it Golaud reveals that he is now married and asks for a permission to return home with his new wife. Arkel laments Golaud’s failure to wed Princess Ursule whose union would have ended the war that cripples his nation. Pelléas, Golaud’s half-brother, enters. He has received news that his friend is on his deathbed, and wants to travel to say goodbye to him. Arkel refuses, reminding Pelléas that his presence is needed at home to care for his own dying father. The lamps are lit for Golaud’s return on top of the tower.
A garden before the castle. Geneviève shows Mélisande the castle grounds: the dark forests of Allemonde and the sea beyond. Pelléas arrives. They look out to sea and notice the ship which brought Golaud and Mélisande departing the kingdom at full speed. Geneviève asks Pelléas to escort Mélisande home.
A sunny day in the forest. Pelléas has led Mélisande to the "Blind Men's Well". People used to believe it possessed miraculous powers to cure blindness. Mélisande plays with the ring Golaud gave her, throwing it up into the air until it slips from her fingers into the well. The clock strikes twelve. Pelléas urges Mélisande to tell Golaud the truth.
A room in the castle. Golaud is with Mélisande. He is wounded, having fallen from his horse while hunting. He tells his wife that the horse suddenly bolted for no reason as the clock struck twelve. Mélisande tearfully implores Golaud to take her away from the old castle, where she is tormented by sadness and anxiety. She is unhappy as she cannot see the sky at the castle. Golaud takes Mélisande’s hands to comfort her and notices the wedding ring is missing. Mélisande claims she dropped it in a cave by the sea where she went to collect shells with little Yniold, Golaud’s son. She could not find the ring because of the rising tide. Golaud becomes furious and orders her to go and search for it at once, even though night has fallen. Golaud tells her to take Pelléas along with her.
Before a cave. Pelléas tells Mélisande she will need to describe the place to Golaud to prove she has been there. The moon comes out lighting the cave and reveals three beggars sleeping in the cave. Mélisande is terrified and runs away.
One of the towers of the castle. Mélisande is at the tower window, combing her long hair before bed. Pelléas appears on a path below the tower. He asks her to lean out so he can kiss her hand as he is going away. Mélisande leans out and her long hair tumbles down from the window on Pelléas. Pelléas playfully ties Mélisande's hair to a willow tree, so that she would not be able to go back inside. Golaud suddenly appears and dismisses Pelléas and Mélisande as nothing but a pair of children.
The vaults of the castle. Golaud leads Pelléas down to the castle vaults, which contain a stagnant pool which has "the scent of death". He tells Pelléas to lean over and smell it.
A terrace at the entrance to the castle. Pelléas is relieved to breathe fresh air again. He basks in the sunlight and enjoys the sea wind. Golaud tells Pelléas that Mélisande is now pregnant and that he must therefore keep a distance so as not to upset or worry her.
Before the castle. Golaud sits with his little son and questions him about Pelléas and Mélisande: How often does he see them together? What do they talk about? Do they quarrel? Do they close the door? Yniold reveals little that Golaud wants to know since he is too innocent to understand what he is asking. When Mélisande’s window lights up, Golaud gets his son to spy on her through the window but Yniold says that Pelléas and Mélisande are doing nothing other than looking at the light in silence. Terrified of his father’s reaction, Yniold screams for Golaud to let him down again.
A room in the castle. Pelléas tells Mélisande that his father is getting better and that now he can leave on his travels. He arranges a last meeting with Mélisande before his departure. Arkel is happy that the sickness, that faithful servant of death, has departed from the castle and now glimmers of happiness can at last come back. Golaud bursts in with blood on his forehead. When Mélisande tries to wipe the blood away, he angrily pushes her away and accuses her of being unfaithful. He seizes her by the hair and starts dragging her around the room. Arkel intervenes to put an end to the ugly scene. Golaud threatens that he will wait for a better time to prove that he is right.
In the park. Yniold tries to lift a boulder to free his ball, which is trapped between it and some rocks. He sees a flock of sheep passing nearby. Yniold asks the shepherd why the flock suddenly stopped bleating. The shepherd explains that they have turned onto a path that doesn't lead back to the sheepfold.
Pelléas waits for Mélisande at the "Blind Men's Well" late at night. When she appears, he tries to lead her away from the moonlight so that they would not be seen. However, Mélisande is not afraid. After Pelléas admits his love for her, Mélisande confesses that she loves him too. They hear the gates being shut. Now they are locked out. The lovers notice Golaud watching the couple from behind a tree. Golaud breaks their embrace.
A room in the castle. Arkel, Golaud and the doctor are gathered around Mélisande’s bed as she is close to death. She awakes with no recollection of the murder or of her premature baby’s birth. Golaud is overcome with guilt, but he presses Mélisande to confess her forbidden love for Pelléas as soon as he is alone with her. Arkel enters and tries to reason with jealous Golaud. Mélisande is introduced to her baby girl. She says “I pity her” and dies. Arkel leads his family out of the room.
On 17 May 1893 the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens saw its one and only performance of Maurice Maeterlinck’s recently completed play Pelléas et Mélisande. The production had been organised by a devotee of the dramatist, the acclaimed actor Aurélien Lugné-Poë, who performed the role of Prince Golaud. In line with the author’s wishes, the costumes were produced in the spirit of Memling, the sets were reminiscent of the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and between the auditorium and the stage there was a trembling transparent tulle curtain. This version of the legend of Tristan and Isolde flowed in a dream-like manner. Among invited guests in the audience were the poets Mallarmé and Henri de Régnier, the painters Whistler and Lerolle and the thirty-year-old Claude Debussy. For a long time he had been looking for a plot for a possible opera.
While still a student at the conservatoire, when faced with his composition teacher Ernest Guiraud’s question about who could be his librettist Debussy replied “Someone who doesn’t say every single thing. I would like to add my dream to his – that would be the ideal. Neither a specific country nor time. (…) Today in opera there is too much singing. The musical clothing is far too heavy. You should only sing when there is a need to. Semitones. Grisaille. No working it for the sake of working it. A lengthy development should not be combined with the lexis. I dream of short verse and mobile scenes. I don’t care about the three unities! I need scenes that are varied in terms of place and style, where the characters don’t orate about their own existences, fates and so on.” These answers so prophetically describe Pelléas that when the text of this cited conversation was published many years later it gave the lie to the doubt: had it all been made up?
Pelléas is a drama where little is spoken and much is left unsaid, but this silence is more eloquent than words, it as if asks to be filled with the music of premonitions, doubts, suspicions and insights. Debussy was not even called on to create the libretto. He set Maeterlinck’s play, with the exception of three scenes, to music word for word. The composer began to create the music from the culmination – with the declarations of the protagonists before they are parted. With the scene, in which after an outpouring of emotions and Pelléas’ declaration “I love you”, Mélisande, in utter silence, almost imperceptibly replies on one note “I love you too.”
While looking for appropriate musical language, the composer complained to his friends that “All of this is too much like the duet by M. So–and–So, or nobody in particular, and worst of all the ghost of old Klingsor.” It was not by chance that he named a Wagnerian character. Debussy thought Wagnerian drama to be poisonous and, finding nothing comparable in contemporary French or Italian opera, his attention was focussed only on Bayreuth. Pelléas is his response to Wagner in the framework of a similar subject. Where Wagner forces his characters to declare themselves over half an hour and repeat the same thing many times, with Debussy there are mere modest statements, things left unsaid and semi-hints. Instead of the dense sound of Wagner’s orchestra Debussy gave his preference to a rarefied and pointillist palette with frequent divisi of the strings, gossamer-like solos and blends. To isolate the timbres he even considered whether or not he should position the orchestral sections so that the cellos were next to the bassoons or “split up the brass section” so that it sounded like an ensemble of soloists. He preferred static sequences to intense harmonic development, as if stopping musical time: it was not by chance that Maeterlinck’s plays were called “dramas of waiting”. Debussy avoided loudness and pathos – his music rarely extends beyond the confines of piano. The heroes’ leitmotifs appear only in the orchestra, and not in the vocal roles. Debussy the critic jokingly wrote that Wagner’s heroes, having sung their leitmotifs, were like someone who, leaving a calling card, excitedly recites its content.
At the opera’s premiere the lack of songs and dances in the score as well as of choruses and ensembles, those very semitones, the chemistry of micro-phrases and the extremely subtle sound patterns that had troubled Debussy left the audience perplexed. And when Mélisande replied to Golaud’s question in Act II as to why she is crying she responded “I am miserable here” the auditorium gloomily joked “So are we.” In Pelléas the dramatic energy mounts gradually. The first half of the opera takes place in an emotional range that is between “quiet” and “very quiet”. It is only towards Acts III and IV that tenderness, fear, despair and cruelty come to the fore – such as the jealousy scene in which Golaud makes his young son look out of the window at his wife and the prince’s brother. The censor insisted this scene be dropped in order not to shock the family audiences of the Opéra Comique, though in the end only fourteen bars were cut. Both Richard Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov found Pelléas monotonic. But for the French, Debussy’s opera became an object of national pride and, looking back, we can see that people’s estimation of it has only increased. Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen trace the starting point of 20th century music to 30 April 1902 and the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande. Anna Petrova
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