Psychological Slow Burn: Debussy's 'Pelléas and Mélisande'

In Pelléas and Mélisande, many things are murky, including the relationships between the main characters. Arkel rules the mythical kingdom of Allemonde, where the opera is set. Geneviève is his daughter. She's also the mother of Pelléas and his older brother Golaud, though by different marriages, making the two men half-brothers. There's also little Yniold, Golaud's son from an earlier marriage. Then, out of nowhere, comes an enigmatic princess named Mélisande, which is where the opera begins.

As ACT ONE gets started, Golaud is hunting in the forest, when he finds Mélisande sobbing quietly near the water. She's lost. Golaud frightens her, and she evades his questions. Her crown has fallen into the water, but she doesn't want it back. Reluctantly, she's convinced to leave with Golaud, asking him "Where are you going?" He replies, "I don't know. I'm lost, too."

Scene Two shoots the story forward six months. Golaud has married the young Mélisande. He's explained it all in a letter, which Geneviève reads to Arkel in a large room in the castle. Golaud wants to pay a visit with his new bride, and the act's final scene finds Mélisande and Geneviève touring the castle grounds. Mélisande notices that even in the daylight, the trees cover the castle in darkness.

As they find a small spot to view the sea, Pelléas joins them, and they hear distant singing from the sailors. In their first, fleeting moments alone, Pelléas tells Mélisande that he plans to sail out the next day. With a hint of desperation, Mélisande asks him "why?"

ACT TWO begins with Pelléas and Mélisande together in the park. Pelléas quizzes her about how she first met Golaud. Mélisande plays with her wedding ring, tossing it in the air. As the castle clock strikes noon, the ring falls through her hands into the fountain.

Coincidentally, just as the clock chimed and the ring fell, Golaud was thrown from his horse in another part of the castle grounds. Mélisande finds him in bed, recovering. Suddenly she begins to cry. She won't say what's wrong, just that she can no longer stay at the castle.

Golaud takes Mélisande's hand and sees that she's not wearing her ring. Mélisande makes up a story that it fell off while she was collecting sea shells, and she couldn't find it. Even though it's now dark, Golaud insists that she run down to the spot to look for the ring, instructing her to take Pelléas along.

In one of Debussy's most evocative scenes, Pelléas and Mélisande pretend to hunt for the ring by the sea. As they peer into a cave moonlight floods in, revealing three white-haired beggars leaning against each other, fast asleep. Mélisande is frightened, and the two quietly turn away.

ACT THREE opens with Mélisande and Pelléas at play. She's at a window, combing her hair. He's down below, coaxing her to let her long locks fall so he can wrap himself up in them. In the middle of it all, Mélisande's husband Golaud shows up and scolds the two for acting like children.

Next comes another of Debussy's wonderfully atmospheric scenes. Golaud guides Pelléas deep into the bowels of the castle. The air is dank and suffocating. "Here's the stagnant pool I was telling you about," Golaud says menacingly. "Can you smell the scent of death? Let's go to the edge of this overhanging rock. Lean over, and I'll hold you." After they've climbed back into the fresh air, Golaud makes his implied warning clear: He says that he's noticed something between Pelléas and Mélisande, and that Pelléas is to stay away from her. He also reveals that Mélisande is pregnant.

The next scene takes us to a spot below Mélisande's window. Golaud questions little Yniold about what he might have seen going on between Pelléas and Mélisande. Golaud lifts Yniold up to peek into the window. Inside, a lamp is lit and Pelléas is there. He and Mélisande are quietly looking into the light, as Act Three ends.

To begin ACT FOUR, Pelléas and Mélisande agree to meet one last time at the fountain. Pelléas explains that his ailing father has advised him to leave the castle -- and he's decided to follow the advice.

Old Arkel is happy to hear that Pelléas's father is recovering from his illness. He thinks it will cheer the place up. But Golaud enters, and he's in a foul mood. To the horror of both Pelléas and Arkel, Golaud verbally abuses Mélisande, then drags her around the room by her hair. After he storms off, Arkel asks if he was drunk. Mélisande answers no, but says that Golaud no longer loves her.

The next scene takes us to the fountain. Little Yniold is looking for his ball, and finds a shepherd with his sheep. As Yniold leaves, Pelléas and Mélisande hold their rendezvous. And here, they finally have a love scene. As they kiss, and share their feelings, Mélisande hears a rustling sound nearby. Their passion rises -- but the noise she heard was Golaud.  He rushes out of hiding and ends things by killing Pelléas with his sword. Panicked, Mélisande runs into the woods, with Golaud in pursuit.

ACT FIVE is set in Mélisande's bedroom. She has given birth to a little girl, but now Mélisande is dying. "Do you forgive me?" Golaud asks Mélisande. "Yes," she says, "but for what?"

Golaud takes the blame for all that's gone wrong, and pleads with Mélisande to tell him the truth about her and Pelléas. Mélisande slips in and out of delirium, and finally dies. Golaud sobs, as Arkel declares, "She was a poor, mysterious little being -- like all of us."