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Pelléas and Mélisande - Synopsis
(French title: Pélléas et Mélisande)
An Opera by Claude Debussy

Opera in five acts (12 scenes). Music by Debussy; text by Maurice Maeterlinck. Produced: Paris, April 30, 1902. New York, February 19, 1908.


ARKEL, King of Allemonde…………………………… Bass
GENOVEVA, mother of Pelléas and Golo…………….. Alto
PELLEAS, one of King Arkel's grandsons ……………Tenor
GOLO, one of King Arkel's grandsons………………. Baritone
LITTLE YNIOLD, Golo’s son by first marriage…….. A child’s voice
A PHYSICIAN……………………………………….. Bass

Act I. Scene I. In a forest. Golo while hunting has lost his way following a wild boar and come to a place unknown to him. There he sees a woman sitting by a spring. She acts like a figure in a fairy tale and behaves like a person stranger to and isolated from the world. Finally Golo succeeds in inducing Mélisande -- she at last tells him her name after being urged -- to follow him out of the dark woods.

Scene II. A room in the castle. Genoveva is reading to the aged, almost blind King Arkel a letter which Golo has written to his half brother Pelléas. From this letter we learn that Golo has already been married six months to the mysterious Mélisande. He has great love for his wife, about whom, however, he knows no more today than he did at first in the woods. So he fears that his grandfather, the King, may not forgive him for this union and asks Pelléas to give him a sign in case the King is ready " to honour the stranger as his daughter." Otherwise he will steer the keel of his ship to the most remote land. King Arkel has arrived at that time of life when the wisdom of experience tends to make one forgiving toward everything that happens. So he pardons Golo and commissions his grandson Pelléas to give his brother the sign agreed upon.

Scene III. Before the castle. The old queen Genoveva seeks to calm Mélisande’s distress at the gloominess of the world into which she has wandered. Pelléas too is there. He would like to go to see a distant friend who is ill but fate holds him here. Or rather have not chains been wound about the twain of which they yet have no anticipation?

Act II. Scene IV. A fountain in the park. Pelléas and Mélisande have arrived at this thickly shaded spot. Is Mélisande, a Melusine-like creature? Water attracts her wonderfully. She bends over her reflection. Because she cannot reach, it, she is tempted to play with the ring that Golo sent her. It slips from her hand and sinks.

Scene V. There must have been some peculiar condition attached to the ring. At the same hour that it fell in the fountain Golo’s horse shied while hunting so that he was hurt and now lies wounded in bed. Mélisande is taking care of him. She tells Golo that she did not feel well the day before. she is oppressed by a certain foreboding, she does not know what it is. Golo seizes her hands to console her and sees that the ring is missing. Then he drives her out into the night to look for it. "Sooner would I give away everything I have, my fortune and goods, rather than have lost the precious ring." Pelléas will help her.

Scene VI. Before a grotto in the rocks. Mélisande has deceived Golo by telling him that the ring has slipped from her hand into the sea. So Pelléas must now lead her to this grotto in order that she may know at least the place in which she can claim that she lost the ring. A dreadful place in which the shudder of death stalks.

Act III. Scene VII. A tower in the castle. At the window of the tower Mélisande is standing combing her hair that she has let down. Then Pelléas comes along the road that winds around under her window. Pelléas is coming to say farewell. Early the next morning he is going away. So Mélisande will at least once more reach out her hand to him that he may press it to his lips. Love weaves a web about the twain with an ever thicker netting without their noticing it. Their hands do not touch but as Mélisande leans forwards so far her long hair falls over Pelléas’s head and fills the youth with passionate feelings. Their words become warmer -- then Golo comes near and reproves their "childishness."

Scene VIII. In the vault under the castle. Like a gloomy menace Golo leads Pelléas into these underground rooms where the breeze of death blows. Seized with shuddering they go out. On the terrace at the entrance to the vault Golo in earnest words warns Pelléas to keep away from Mélisande and to refrain from confidential conversations with her.

Scene IX. Before the castle. In vain Golo has sought to quiet himself by saying that it was all only childishness. Jealousy devours his heart. So now he seeks with hypocritical calm his little son Yniold, offspring of his first marriage, to inquire about the intimacy of Pelléas and Mélisande. The child cannot tell him of anything improper; yet Golo feels how it is with the couple. And he feels that he himself is old, much older that Pelléas and Mélisande.

Act IV. Scene X. In a room in the castle Pelléas and Mélisande meet. This evening he must see her. She promises to go in the park to the old fountain where she formerly lost the ring. It will be their last meeting. Yet Mélisande does not understand what is driving the youth away. The old King Arkel enters the room. The aged man has taken Mélisande to his heart. He feels that the young wife is unhappy. Now Golo also enters. He can scarcely remain master of his inner commotion. The sight of his wife, who appears the picture of innocence, irritates him so much that he finally in a mad rage throws her on her knees and drags her across the room by her hair.

Scene XI. By the old spring in the park. There is are oppressive feeling of disaster in the air. Only little Yniold does not suffer this gripping burden. It is already growing dark when Mélisande goes to Pelléas. And yet in their farewell, perhaps also on account of Golo’s outburst of anger, the couple clearly see what has caused their condition. And there comes over them something like the affirmation of death and the joy of dying. How fate shuts the gates upon them; a fate they see Golo coming. They rejoice in the idea of death. Pelléas falls by Golo’s sword, Mélisande flees from her husband’s pursuit into the night.

Act V. Scene XII.
A room in the castle. Mélisande lies stretched out in bed. Arkel, Golo, and the physician are conversing softly in the room. No; Mélisande is not dying from the insignificant wound Golo has given her. Perhaps her life will be saved. She awakes as if from dreaming. Everything that has happened is like a dream to her. Desperately Golo rushes to her couch, begs her pardon, and asks her for the truth. He is willing to die too but before his death he wants to know whether she had betrayed him with Pelléas. She denies it. Golo presses her so forcibly and makes her suffer so that she is near death. Then earthly things fall away from her as if her soul were already free. It is not possible to bring her back now. The aged Arkel offers the last services for the dying woman to make the way free for her soul escaping from earthly pain and the burden of the tears of persons left behind.

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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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