Claude Debussy’s hauntingly beautiful Pelleas and Melisande (Pelléas et Mélisande) remains one of the most seminal operas ever written. Premiering at Opéra Comique in Paris in 1902, it revolutionised the art form and defied its traditions. In the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death, Victorian Opera presents a new production of his rarely heard opera Pelleas and Melisande for two performances only on 11 and 13 October at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda.
When Golaud finds the mysterious Melisande alone and weeping in the woods, he claims her as his wife. After she meets his brother Pelleas, an innocent love develops between them while Golaud’s suspicions deepen. A family’s relationships disintegrate as their tragic fates inevitably take grip.
Based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1893 play, Debussy’s symbolist masterpiece fuses text, ethereal harmonies and floating instrumental colour with an atmospheric poetry unlike any other work. Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director Richard Mills, also conducting the opera, notes: “Pelleas and Melisande, Debussy’s only opera, is unlike anything else in the repertoire and changed the history of opera. Its musical and dramatic language were stunningly new and unconventional when it premiered. This opera retains its capacity to astonish with its prodigious musical invention and dramatic force.”
Defying Italian operatic traditions and the dramatic music of Wagner, Debussy created an opera that was highly original and has had few imitations. Devoid of traditional arias or grandiose expressions of feelings, Pelleas and Melisande requires audience members to put aside preconceived notions of what typically defines opera and connect with the music in a more subconscious way.
The mysterious and unsettling yet seductive music creates an ominous atmosphere and reflects the story’s ambiguity and symbolist origins. Dreamy orchestral interludes connect the 15 scenes into a continuous flow of music. Leitmotifs for each principal character help express their psychological states and inner lives.
The opera illuminates the darker tones of humanity; jealousy, paranoia, retribution. While the plot resonates strongly, the many questions the opera raises still linger. Set in the mythical kingdom of Allemonde, the nature of time is unclear as is the nature of the relationship between the title characters.
As Debussy’s music is celebrated across the world, Australian audiences are urged to seize the rare opportunity to hear Victorian Opera’s production of his only opera Pelleas and Melisande.
Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande
Palais Theatre, St Kilda
11 and 13 October, 7:30 pm