Pelleas et Melisande by Claude Debussy

A friend of At the Opera once told us a story that goes a long way towards describing the music of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande. One day, she said, after a summer storm, she decided to follow a rainbow, to see if she could find its end. And, if you can believe her, she actually did find it! There it was, the legendary "end of the rainbow," hanging in the sky, shimmering, beautiful... and just out of reach. "I stood on tip-toe," she said, "and stretched out my arms, and jumped as high as I could. But I just missed being able to touch it."

The music of this week's opera is just like that: often shimmering, and always beautiful. But, like the rainbow, it's fleeting, and elusive, leaving us feeeling like it's somehow, just barely, beyond our grasp. In fact, the music of today's opera seems much like its female protagonist. She's shrouded in mist and mystery - compelling, but not quite tangible. At times, Debussy's Melisande doesn't seem like a real, flesh and blood woman at all; it's as though she's the IMPRESSION of a person, rather than the actual person herself. And that's as it should be, because "Pelleas et Mellisande" was part of a daring new experiment in music. Claude Debussy patterned this after a new movement in the art world of his day, a bold and controversial style, called "Impressionism."

There was a time when artistic "Impressionism" was considered radical. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that these "impressions" were often of nudity. When Manet's "Olympia" was finally exhibited in Paris, the judges were so squeamish about the painting that they decided to hang it way up high, so people would have difficulty seeing it. Manet was accused of being a "radical bohemian." The artist really didn't fit the "radical" bill; he was a well-bred member of French high-society! Nonetheless, the talk persisted, and not only about Manet. Proper folks also bad-mouthed Paul Gaugan, who really WAS a radical bohemian. Still, these often-vilified Impressionist painters set the stage for the art that was to come.

The influence of Impressionist painters on music was not as far-reaching. But their effect on one composer, Claude Debussy, was enormous. Debussy embraced the fundamentals of artistic Impressionism immediately, and applied the same principals to musical composition. This resulted in works like "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," his mesmerizing piano Preludes, and the tone poem "La Mer."

And in 1893, Debussy applied the principals of Impressionism to opera as well. The result was Pelleas et Melisande and it's music was just as controversial as the art that had inspired it. The opera was hardly in rehearsal before one professor of the Paris Conservatory denounced it as a "filthy score" perverted by "errors of harmony." Members of the press rejected the score, and it's often delicate nature, by branding Debussy's followers "Pelleastres" -- and describing them in highly-effeminate terms. Their implication was clear: anyone who actually liked this "unnatural" music must also be living an "unnatural" life. Though the opera was finished in 1895, it wasn't produced until seven years later. And we still don't see it, or hear it, all that often. But this strangely compelling story, with it's obsessive eroticism and ethereal music, is still a work of striking originality, and true genius. It was worth the wait back in 1902, and it still is.

This week At the Opera, host Lou Santacroce talks with conductor Stewart Robertson, who tells us how Debussy took the Impressionist art of his day and transformed it into music. Then, Michelle Krisel will explore the play by Maurice Maeterlinck that inspired this "other-worldly" opera; and one of our regular musical "tour guides," Scott Speck, will lead us through the opera's unique musical landscape.

You can hear At the Opera every week, 30 minutes before curtain at the Met, from National Public Radio.


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