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Program Notes

FRI OCT 20, 8 pm • SAT OCT 21, 8 pm  

LOUIS LANGRÉE conductor • JAMES DARRAH director/curator • ADAM LARSEN projection designer • ADAM RIGG scenic designer • MATTIE ULLRICH costume designer • PABLO SANTIAGO lighting designer • MICHELLE MAGALDI production manager • RICHARD WIEGOLD Arkel • NAOMI O’CONNELL Mélisande • PHILLIP ADDIS Pelléas • BRIAN MULLIGAN Golaud • NANCY MAULTSBY Geneviève • THOM DREEZE Doctor • MAY FESTIVAL CHORUS Robert Porco, director

DEBUSSY (1891–1953)

Pelléas et Mélisande, Lyric Drama in Five Acts and Fifteen Scenes

• Act I
• Act II
• Act III


• Act IV
• Act V

Pelléas et Mélisande, Lyric Drama in Five Acts and Fifteen Scenes

Born: August 2, 1862, St. Germain-en-Laye, near Paris Died: March 25, 1918, Paris

Work composed: Composed in 1893–1895; revised in 1900–1902; orchestrated in 1901–1902

Libretto: Libretto adapted by the composer from the play (1892) by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949)

Premiere: Premiered on April 30, 1902 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, conducted by André Messager

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bell in g, glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, triangle, 2 harps, strings

CSO notable performances: This is the CSO subscription premiere of the complete work, though it was performed in production with Cincinnati Opera in July 2000, Stéphane Denève conducting.

Duration: approx. 2 hours, 30 minutes

“A poet who half speaks things,” Debussy explained in 1889 to Ernest Guiraud, his former composition teacher, when asked what sort of operatic librettist and libretto he would prefer. “Two related dreams, that’s the ideal. No place, no time, no big scene. I have no use at all for the three unities. Scenes with different locations and of different types.... Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing, and the musical settings are too cumbersome. The blossoming of the voice into true singing should occur only when required.... My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes. No discussion or argument between the characters, whom I see at the mercy of life or destiny.” Such unorthodox requirements were hardly surprising from a young composer who had been shaping his creative personality during the preceding decade by setting the sensuous poetic ambiguities of Baudelaire, Bourget, Mallarmé and Verlaine, but it hardly jibed with the operatic project he had started sketching the year before—a swashbuckling drama in the through-composed Wagnerian manner titled Rodrigue et Chimène, based on the 11th-century Spanish national hero El Cid. Though he wrote much music for Rodrigue over the next three years, Debussy came to realize that it was not suited to his creative temperament (he told Gustave Charpentier, the composer of the popular Louise, that it was “contrary to everything I wished to express”), and by 1892, he had put it aside, never to be finished.

Some of Debussy’s dissatisfaction with Rodrigue et Chimène may well have stemmed from his discovery in 1891 of La Princesse Maleine, the first work by the Belgian Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck to receive notice in Paris. Debussy was so strongly drawn to the drama that he asked Maeterlinck’s permission to use it for an opera, but was informed that Paul Dukas had already been granted the rights to set it. (He never did, although Lili Boulanger, Nadia’s gifted younger sister, left an operatic version of La Princesse Maleine unfinished when she died in 1918 at the age of 25.) In May 1892, Maeterlinck published his haunted and haunting play Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy bought a copy as soon as it was available and attended its Parisian stage premiere, a single performance given at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens on May 17, 1893. “The drama of Pelléas, which, despite its dream-like atmosphere, contains far more humanity than those so-called ‘real-life documents,’ seemed to suit my intentions admirably,” he recalled in an article published a decade later. “In it there is an evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and into the orchestral backdrop [‘décor orchestral’].” Debussy, with Maeterlinck’s approval, prepared the text himself, retaining the play’s original dialogue and dramatic structure but cutting four scenes and eliminating some repeated phrases and descriptive detail, and set to work in earnest the following September (though he had already been collecting ideas for several months). By August 1895, he had completed the opera in short score, with extensive notations as to its final scoring. In May 1898, the work was accepted “in principle” for production at the Opéra-Comique, but Debussy had to wait three more years for a formal written agreement that Pelléas would be staged during the 1901–02 season. The final revisions and the orchestration were done at that time. It became evident during the rehearsals for the premiere, set for April 30, 1902, that additional music would be needed to cover some of the scenery changes, so Debussy hurriedly expanded several of the orchestral interludes that bridge between the opera’s scenes.

Maeterlinck himself was in part responsible for the delay in bringing Pelléas et Mélisande to the stage since he insisted that his mistress, the French soprano and actress Georgette Leblanc, create the role of Mélisande. When he was overruled by the Opéra-Comique, which wanted to capitalize on the recent Parisian success of the Scottish diva Mary Garden by featuring her in the premiere, he sued to stop the production, wished for the opera’s “immediate and decided failure,” and even threatened Debussy with his cane when they met. Debussy, for his part, was delighted with the casting change, stating that “[Garden’s] was the kind of gentle voice, with its hesitantly tender and captivating charm, that I had heard in my inmost being.” In 1902, two years after the composer’s death, Maeterlinck attended a performance of Pelléas et Mélisande and relented: “In this affair, I was entirely wrong and Debussy was a thousand times right.”

Though opinion was divided at the first performances of this radically new work (the critic Henri de Curzon called the opera “sickly and practically lifeless,” but Vincent d’Indy, director of the Paris Schola Cantorum, praised the way that Debussy “expressed human feelings and human suffering in human terms”), Pelléas et Mélisande quickly became a fixture in the Parisian operatic repertory; it was produced in Brussels and Frankfurt in 1907, and in New York, London, Milan, Munich, Prague and Berlin the following year. Debussy’s only opera is now regarded by many not just as his masterpiece, but also as the quintessential expression of the sensuality, evocative ambiguity and moody mystery that united the musical Impressionists and the poetic Symbolists in their common quest to expand the boundaries of art and to enrich the spirits of all those who would listen.

For this equivocal, dream-like tale, Debussy devised a vocal style that eschews traditional operatic vocalism for a sort of short-breathed, intoned speech, without arias or text repetitions or melismatic writing. The voices are borne upon an orchestral cushion of enormous harmonic subtlety and luminous instrumental color, which takes over to bridge between the scenes, wordlessly distilling the actions and emotions just suggested or preparing for those to come. “It is my intention,” Debussy wrote, “that the characters of this opera try to sing like real people, and not in an old-fashioned arbitrary language made up of worn-out clichés…. Music is made for the inexpressible; I would like it to seem to emerge from the shadows and go back into them from time to time. It should always be discreet.”


The Story in Brief

Pelléas et Mélisande is rooted in the Symbolists’ philosophy that mood is more important than narrative. Such incidents as occur in the drama often defy logical continuity, seeming rather to be isolated events intended to suggest associations and feelings through language and atmosphere. The story, set in mythical Allemonde, concerns three principal characters, shadowy figures whose backgrounds are never fully revealed. Prince Golaud, lost in the forest while hunting, comes upon Mélisande, frail, weeping and alone. He rescues her and they marry. Mélisande and Pelléas, Golaud’s half-brother, fall gradually, languorously and deeply in love, inciting Golaud’s jealousy. Golaud finds the lovers together, and slays Pelléas with his sword. Mélisande dies after giving birth to a daughter. Golaud grieves.




Scene 1

A forest

Golaud, lost in a forest while hunting a wild boar, comes upon Mélisande, alone, frightened and weeping beside a spring. He is struck by her beauty but she refuses to answer his questions, except to say that she has suffered great harm. [Maeterlinck hinted that she may have escaped from the notorious Duke Bluebeard, whose series of wives each disappeared quickly and under suspicious circumstances.] Golaud glimpses the crown that had fallen from her head into the spring, but she stops him from retrieving it. “I would rather die,” she says. She recoils at his touch, but he convinces her to come with him. “Where?” she asks. “I don’t know. I’m lost, too,” he replies. They leave together.


Scene 2

The castle of King Arkel of Allemonde, several months later

Geneviève, mother of Golaud and Pelléas, reads a letter to King Arkel, her father, from Golaud, who has married Mélisande though he has been unable to discover anything more of her past. In taking the mysterious Mélisande as his wife, Golaud has defied the wishes of Arkel that he undertake a marriage beneficial to the state and he has written to beg his grandfather’s forgiveness. Golaud asks that a light be placed in the tower if he and Mélisande will be welcomed; if not, he will never return. Arkel agrees. Pelléas enters, distraught at news of the mortal illness of a distant friend who has called him to his bedside. Arkel asks him to delay his departure to be with them when Golaud returns and also so that Pelléas may attend his own dying father, lying ill elsewhere in the castle. [This unnamed figure, Geneviève’s second husband, never appears in the opera.] Geneviève reminds Pelléas to place a lantern in the tower window that night as the signal of welcome to his half-brother.


Scene 3

The castle gardens

As Geneviève escorts Mélisande through the deeply shadowed castle gardens, they see the ship that brought Mélisande sail out of the harbor. Pelléas joins them as night falls, and Geneviève asks him to accompany Mélisande into the castle. He takes her arm and tells her that he may soon have to leave. She seems disappointed.



Scene 1

A well in the park

Pelléas has brought Mélisande to a well in the park to escape the heat of midday. When she lies on the rim of the well, her long hair trails in the water. She playfully tosses her wedding ring into the air and it falls into the well just as the noon hour strikes. “What shall we tell Golaud?” she frets. “The truth,” Pelléas replies. They depart.


Scene 2

Golaud’s bedroom in the castle

Golaud has been injured while hunting when he was thrown from his horse at the stroke of noon, exactly the moment Mélisande lost her ring in the well. As Mélisande sits at his bedside, she confesses her deep unhappiness at living in the castle. Golaud admits that it is “very old and gloomy.” When he takes her hand to comfort her, he notices that her ring is missing. She hesitates but then tells him that it slipped off when she was collecting sea-shells near a cave on the shore for Yniold, Golaud’s young son by a previous marriage. “I would rather have lost all I possess than have lost that ring,” Golaud responds. “You don’t know what it is. You don’t know where it came from.” He demands that she find it immediately despite the descending darkness and take Pelléas to help. “Oh! I’m unhappy,” she laments as she leaves, weeping.


Scene 3

The cave on the shore

Pelléas and Mélisande have come to the cave only so that they may describe it to Golaud. As he tells her about its dark interior—“very big…full of blue shadows…the path is very narrow, between two lakes that have never been sounded”—a moonbeam suddenly illuminates three beggars huddled in a corner who have come to seek shelter during a famine in the land.



Scene 1

Beneath Mélisande’s window in the castle tower

Mélisande is seen through her window in the castle tower, singing and combing her hair. Pelléas appears beneath the window, tells her he is leaving the next day, and asks her to stretch her arm to him so that he can hold her hand. They cannot reach each other but her long hair cascades down from the window, enveloping him. He is enraptured. Golaud enters and observes their not-so-innocent play, but tells them, “You’re just a pair of children…what children you are.”


Scene 2

The castle vaults, the next morning

Golaud, his jealousy aroused after seeing his wife and half-brother together the night before, takes Pelléas to a stagnant pool in the castle’s vaults from which “the scent of death rises.” Pelléas, unnerved, protests that he cannot breathe and they go out.


Scene 3

A terrace of the castle

Pelléas breathes freely again as he and Golaud emerge into the light. Golaud pointedly speaks of the “childish game” he observed between Pelléas and Mélisande the previous night, and warns him to avoid her as much as possible because she is now pregnant.


Scene 4

Beneath Mélisande’s window

Golaud and Yniold are together below Mélisande’s window in the wall of the castle. Golaud, increasingly suspicious, interrogates Yniold about how Mélisande and Pelléas behave during the many hours the boy is with them. Yniold finally recalls that they kissed once, on the lips, when it was raining. A light appears in Mélisande’s room, and Golaud lifts his son up to the window to see what she is doing and if Pelléas is with her. He is, but Yniold tells his father that they are just sitting silently, staring at the light. Yniold becomes frightened and threatens to scream if his father does not let him down. Golaud lowers the boy to the ground and they leave.


Act IV

Scene 1

A room in the castle

Pelléas tells Mélisande that his father is recovering, but that his father has seen in him “the expression of people who don’t have long to live” and urged him to leave the castle quickly for his own good. Pelléas has agreed to go. Realizing that he will never see Mélisande again, he asks her to meet him one last time that night at the well in the park where she lost her ring. He leaves.


Scene 2

The same

King Arkel enters and shares his joy at the recovery of Pelléas’ father with Mélisande. As he tells her that he hopes it will mark the beginning of a happier time for them all, Golaud angrily enters, looking for his sword. He becomes increasingly furious, accusing Mélisande of betraying him and then dragging her around the room by her hair—“Your long hair is useful for something at last!” Golaud suddenly becomes calm and leaves. Mélisande tells Arkel that Golaud no longer loves her. When she again admits her unhappiness, the old King says, “If I were God, I should have pity on the hearts of men.”


Scene 3

The well in the park

Yniold is trying to move a heavy stone to retrieve a golden ball trapped behind it. His attention is diverted by the bleating of a herd of sheep in the distance. The Shepherd calls out that they are not being driven to the sheepfold. When the animals fall silent, Yniold worries where—or even if—they will sleep that night and runs off to tell “somebody.”


Scene 4

The same

Pelléas enters, worried that Mélisande might not join him. When she does, they abandon their reticence and fear, and passionately declare their love for each other. They pause when they hear the gates of the castle being locked for the night. Golaud has followed them and secretly observed their tryst. He emerges from the shadows, sword in hand, and slays his half-brother with a single deadly stroke. Mélisande flees in terror. Golaud follows.


Act V

Mélisande’s bedroom in the castle, several days later

Mélisande, slightly injured in Golaud’s assault, has given birth prematurely. Golaud, Arkel and the Doctor speak together, the Doctor offering encouraging words about her recovery, Golaud expressing regret, Arkel worried about the girl’s condition. Mélisande awakens but her thoughts are clouded. She admits loving Pelléas, but adds that they were innocent when Golaud, unable to shed his jealousy, asks if theirs was “a forbidden love.” “No, no, we weren’t guilty,” she replies. Her awareness continues to fade and her daughter is brought to her, but she is too weak to hold her. The castle servants silently gather in the room and fall on their knees at the moment Mélisande dies. Arkel, cradling the newborn in his arms, says, with an old man’s understanding of the sadness of life, “The child must live in her place now. It’s the poor thing’s turn.”

—Dr. Richard E. Rodda