A Quintessentially French Enigma: Pelléas et Mélisande

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A young woman sits weeping in the forest, her hair as long as Rapunzel’s. She is brooding near a small pond into which she has dropped her crown. She does not want the crown back, though. A prince, lost in the forest hunting, comes upon her and is taken aback to find her. He offers to retrieve the crown and questions her as to her origins, but she ignores his questions — replying, but not to what he asked. He tells her she should go with him. Night is falling, after all, and the forest will be cold. Unsure at first, she eventually follows him. The scene ends.

This is the opening scene of French composer Claude Debussy’s only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). An operatic setting of a play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck, the action concerns a love triangle between Golaud, grandson of King Arkel of Allemonde and our hunter; Mélisande, the young woman from the forest who becomes his wife; and Pelléas, Golaud’s younger half brother. Mélisande is Golaud’s second wife, his first having died before the opera’s action begins. After marrying Mélisande, Golaud brings her back to Allemonde and his family’s dreary castle, knowing not much more about her than what he and we discovered in the first scene. There, Pelléas and Mélisande meet and fall in love, with disastrous consequences.

Put this way, the opera does not sound all that different from other operas, especially those of the 19th century. Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for example, also contains a love triangle between a young woman, an older nobleman, and his younger relative, and the theme of forbidden or frustrated love more or less weaves its way through almost all of opera. Pelléas et Mélisande, however, is not quite like other operas. In fact, Debussy set out to make it exactly the opposite of the tastes of the day, which, incidentally, were decidedly Wagnerian.

In writing Pelléas et Mélisande, however, Debussy did more than just break away from Wagner’s influence. He created a landmark work, something unique within the larger operatic tradition and set apart by its enigmatic nature. Yet he also created something that is, in the words of Metropolitan Opera Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, “quintessentially French.” What sets Pelléas et Mélisande apart is in large part Debussy’s unique style and sense of what opera should be, combined with the idiosyncrasies of Maeterlinck’s play. Nevertheless, it is still firmly fixed in a tradition that stretches back to the days of Louis XIV.

A Different Ideal of Opera

Before ever seeing the play, Debussy was already formulating an ideal of opera that ran counter to the established conventions and tastes. “The ideal would be two associated dreams,” he wrote to fellow composer Ernest Guiraud in 1890, three years before the play was first performed. “No time, no place. No big scene … Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome … My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes. No discussion or arguments between the characters whom I see at the mercy of life or destiny.”

Enter Maeterlinck and his play, which contained many of the very qualities Debussy was seeking. Maeterlinck was a key figure of the Symbolist movement, a literary and artistic current contemporary to Debussy and that prized metaphor and its attempts to convey a deeply interior life via evocative symbolic images or objects. It was an anti-realist movement, and one whose characters were themselves often more symbols than personalities. Frequently, they seem pulled along by some great, impersonal and inhuman force. In Axel’s Castle, a study of the Symbolist movement, literary critic Edmund Wilson describes Maeterlinck’s works as generally set in “a twilit world” with characters “less often dramatic personalities than disembodied broodings and longings.”

Already a perfect match, and Debussy’s Pelléas succeeds in conveying this dreamlike quality. A sense of continuous flux underlies the whole score of the opera, as each scene seems to blend into the next. As in a dream, many of the events themselves seem unconnected and their causes unclear, yet they occur without comment from any of the characters.

“An Evocative Language”

In particular, Debussy was also drawn to Maeterlinck’s dialogue. Unrhymed and meterless, the play is prose rather than poetry, and almost all of its dialogue became the libretto, with no revision. Characters often express themselves in what seem like enigmatic non-sequiturs, and are often unable or unwilling to articulate what they really mean. Yet there are clearly layers beneath the words they speak and in what they do not say at all. Debussy explores all the dialogue’s potential subtext in his orchestration, letting the enigmas stand rather than try to resolve them musically. Debussy would write of the play in a 1902 article, “Pourquoi j’ai écrit Pelléas” (“Why I wrote Pelléas”), “In it there is an evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and into the orchestral backcloth.”

What the characters do say is relatively simple, seemingly straightforward, and sung that way. The French is not very difficult for nonnative speakers, and in Debussy’s writing, the rhythms of the characters’ vocal lines — how they express themselves musically — is intimately tied up in the natural rhythms of the French language. Blurring the old distinction between recitative (the wordier part of early operas that was more conversational and intended to move the plot forward) and aria (the more meditative part sung by one character, sort of the operatic analogue to a soliloquy), there are no big arias or chances to show off vocal virtuosity. True, operas prior to this had been moving toward a more continuous format and were not simply formulaic alternations between aria and recitative, but Debussy was unique in the way he eschewed big, melodic arias in favor of an older recitative style that is somewhere between chanting and singing.

This is not to say that Debussy’s music is monotonous or that the characters simply plod through their music to an inevitable conclusion, despite what Debussy said about his ideal libretto depicting characters “at the mercy of life or destiny.” Depending on the scene, the music shimmers brightly or dances exuberantly. But it is to say that this opera is a very different experience from many others. A more conventional opera may seem as if it is continually pulling you forward, both musically and dramatically. Pelléas lacks this sense of forward momentum. Listening to it, you feel much more as if the music has enveloped itself around you and you are wandering in it.

“Quintessentially French”

It is this quality of flux and the close marriage between the rhythms of the vocal lines and the natural rhythms of the French language that lead Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducted the opera during its run at the Met earlier this year, to characterize Pelléas as “quintessentially French.” Elsewhere, he points to the “refined and complex” nature of the score as further affirming its place in the French tradition.

Others cite additional examples making it typically Gallic. In A History of Opera for example, music professors Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker note how for Pelléas, Mélisande’s voice — along with her impossibly long hair — serves as “his chief erotic fixation,” as Carmen’s voice does for Don José in Carmen and Dalila’s voice does for Samson in Samson et Dalila, two great French works from the preceding century. The eschewing of overly-virtuosic singing in favor of a more straightforward style is reminiscent of Jean-Baptiste Lully and the early days of French opera, when the French were attempting to make an Italian-born art form into their own. The opera is even a drame lyrique, a style of opera that arose in 19th century France as an alternative to the also distinctly French grand opéra.

A Balletic Opera

Given its ethereal, dreamlike qualities and its reliance on musical and unspoken communication, however, I also like to think of it as quintessentially French in another way: it is quintessentially French in that it is balletic.

Equally refined and complex, with roots also stretching back to the court of the Sun King, ballet is an art form built on contrasts. I am not the first to make this observation. Jennifer Homans in her history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, also notes that ballet is a study in contrasts. The effortless appearance of the dance contrasted against the effort to make it look so. The ballerina’s apparent weightlessness as she balances en pointe contrasted against all her weight pressing into the floor (this, by the way, is what allows her to balance). In her book on ballet, Celestial Bodies, a meditation on the art form and its history, Laura Jacobs also notes the central role that contrasts play in ballet on a thematic level. As Jacobs describes in her chapter on the ballet Giselle, “ballets, especially those that tell a story, often deal in dualities, their plots braced between mated oppositions. … Opposition is built into classical dance … We see enduring theater built on slender narratives, stretched taught between existential extremes.”

Pelléas et Mélisande could also said to be constructed on such opposition, it too being “built on [a] slender narrative” suspended between contrasting “existential extremes.” Like many of the story-driven ballets that Jacobs describes in her book, its plot is fairy tale-like and spare. There are dualities everywhere: light and dark, young and old, blindness and sight, movement and stillness.

And of course the “existential extremes,” the duality of life and death, are ever-present, with death always lurking at the periphery. There is Golaud’s dead first wife, and in the beginning of the opera, Pelléas’ father is sick in bed elsewhere in the castle, potentially in danger of death. Also early in the opera, Pelléas receives a letter telling him a friend is dying and that he must go at once (his friend even claims to know the hour of his death). We are told there is a famine in the land, and later on, a jealous Golaud will kill his brother. In the end, Mélisande will also die, after giving birth to a daughter who, as Arkel notes in the final lines of the opera, will take her mother’s place. The cycle of life, and death, will continue, much as it does in other operas and in classical ballet. But the marriage of these two elements, the operatic and the balletic, pushes Pelléas et Mélisande into a territory all its own.

Aspiring writer interested in the intersection of art, literature, and philosophy.

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