Pelléas et Mélisande

Maurice Maeterlinck’s iconic drama Pelléas et Mélisande is a landmark in Symbolist literature comparable to the best works of Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud or Stéphane Mallarmé. It was in fact Mallarmé who accompanied Debussy to the singular first performance of the play, and later encouraged him with the idea of an opera based on the play which so enraptured them both.

The psycho-dramatic principles of Maeterlinck’s Symbolism emphasize the internal concept of unconscious motivation over the external one of action. What is more important is the predominance of symbols, nuances and allusions over any action taking place as if outside real time in a fairy-tale world ruled by a fatalistic inevitability.

From a different perspective, Mallarmé loved the non-specificity of music, in opposition to words used in any conventional drama including opera until then. Debussy fused these complementary ideas to words in music too, and his unique style retained the symbolism in his opera, although Debussy did not always share Maeterlinck’s teleoligical mysticism.

The Play becomes the Opera

The play was published in 1893; by then Debussy had already started preliminary work on the opera even before a formal authorization was granted. It was however a long labor of love, fraught with many problems, pre-production delays and other impediments, so that the opera was not premiered until April 1902.

Debussy’s adaptation was based on close correlation between the music in his opera and the text of Maeterlinck’s play. The symbolism of the play was well suited to Debussy’s minimalist approach to the opera, in which the silent pauses, shadows and understated symbols are often more eloquent than any external action.

Apart from editing out some redundant text or unsuitable passages and conjoining a few disparate sections, Debussy excised a total of four scenes. Otherwise, the synopsis of the opera follows the  outline of the play  faithfully.

Maeterlinck and Debussy

Some musicologists tend to attach undue significance to these two having the same birth year. In some ways this was justified, as exemplified by the enthusiastic collaboration between the two at the beginning and also the freedom Debussy enjoyed as regards editing the text to music. Debussy did not abuse this freedom, and the textual integrity was retained.

This cozy relationship however soured during the pre-production phase of the opera. Debussy had originally promised the role of Mélisande to Maeterlinck’s mistress, the renowned soprano Georgette Leblanc. But all this changed when the relatively unknown Scottish soprano Mary Garden burst on the Parisian opera scene enthralling everyone, and after hearing the “tender and captivating charm” of her voice Debussy was so impressed by Mary Garden that despite his initial reluctance, he instated her as the definitive Mélisande and dropped Leblance.

Thus ensued the years of acrimony and bitter hostility and - after Maeterlinck’s lawsuit failed to stop the production of the opera by legal means - threats of physical violence. Years later, after at last seeing the opera for the first time in 1920 Maeterlinck conceded his earlier errors of judgement and recanted his hostile attacks; by then Debussy was already dead.

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A Groundbreaking Work

Debussy once complained that there was always too much singing in opera! That might have been said in jest, buy somehow encapsulated his approach to writing an opera. He had made several attempts at writing and indeed started many operas before, but every time lost his ardor soon afterwards. All this changed when he found his ldeal in Maeterlinck’s symbolist play, which formed the basis of his only opera.

In a novel break with tradition, Debussy dispensed with a librettist altogether and directly set the text of the play almost verbatim as his libretto. It was also highly unusual to adapt a prose libretto inasmuch as Maeterlinck’s play was not written in verse. But this prose drama suited Debussy’s design perfectly, and enabled him to avoid the conventional arias and recitatives, or the Wagnerian endless melodies leading to ‘too much singing’.

Debussy also asserted that the French language was better suited to emulating the rhythm of normal speech, rather than the continuous singing styles of Wagner or other opera composers. This was exemplified by the particular fusion of Parlando and cantilena styles he adapted in this work, which inspired and influenced so many of his contemporary and later composers.

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Influence and Legacy

The French baroque masters Rameau and Lully were Debussy’s early inspiration for his musical idealism, probably as a reaction against the growing influence of Wagnerism among some of the French composers of his time. Yet Debussy was not a chauvinist; the quest for his ideal opera style extended to Caccini in Renaissance Italy and also, more recently, to Wagner.

Obviously Debussy was not a fervent anti-Wagnerian; he was in fact highly impressed by Wagner’s revolutionary musical ideas at first, and went to the Bayreuth Festival many times to see the latest operas of Wagner. Indeed he was a great admirer of Parsifal. Yet soon after starting work on his Pelléas et Mélisande he realized that his nascent opera would inevitably be judged against Tristan und Isolde. A rationale for his radicalism, perhaps?

Although he tried hard to escape Wagner’s influence, some parellelism persisted, most clearly in his treatment of recurring themes associated with the characters or situations in his opera; nothing could be closer to the Wagnerian leitmotifs.

To some of his detractors, Debussy’s ‘new music’ seemed a tuneless inane mess, but many other found in this revolutionary music a bold departure from the old operatic paradigm, even bolder than Wagner’s. Although the initial reception was mixed, a ground swell of epochal fervor soon changed all that, even among some avowed Wagnerians and post-romantic composers like Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenebrg who admired and were influenced by his radicalism.

Among many contemporary or later works inspired by Debussy, Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Ariane et Barbe-bleue by Paul Dukas are both symbolist Operas in the tradition of Maeterlinck/Debussy, both dealing with Maeterlinck’s adaptation of the fairy tale legend of Bluebeard, with implied affinity with Pelléas et Mélisande. Bartók’s opera is better known and often hailed alongside Debussy’s among the great twentieth century operas. Yet the highly original sole opera by Dukas, with libretto by Maeterlinck himself is seldom played now, which is hardly justifiable. May be its days will soon come?

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Thus Maeterlinck’s play, adapted by Debussy as drame lyrique en 5 acts et 12 tableaux, became arguably a better known testament of symbolism.