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James Conlon on Debussy's Pelléas & Mélisande (Part Two)

Posted on: March 17, 2020

LA Opera's Richard Seaver Music Director, James Conlon, delves deeply into Debussy's Pelléas & Mélisande - one of his desert island favorites. Join him as he delves into the gorgeous music and mystery of this beloved work. (Part Two of a three-part series.)

Click Read More to read the Pelléas & Mélisande synopsis.


Act I
Scene 1 – In a forest
Prince Golaud of Allemonde has become lost while hunting. He sees a young girl by a pool. There is a crown in the water, but she refuses to let him retrieve it for her. He gradually learns that she too is lost and that her name is Mélisande. Golaud persuades her to leave the forest with him.

Scene 2 – A room in the castle, six months later
Geneviève, mother to Golaud and his half-brother Pelléas, reads a letter to the almost-blind Arkel, King of Allemonde. It has been written by Golaud to Pelléas. It relates how Golaud has married Mélisande but knows as little about her now as when they met in the forest. Golaud is worried that Arkel, his grandfather, will not accept the marriage, so he asks Pelléas to send a sign that all is well: a light in a tower to signify that Arkel blesses the couple.

Pelléas wants to visit his dying friend, Marcellus, but Arkel reminds him that his own father is very ill too and that he must stay at home. Geneviève tells Pelléas he must light the lamp in the tower for Golaud.

Scene 3 – In front of the castle
Geneviève and Mélisande walk together in the dark gardens, where they encounter Pelléas. They watch a ship put out to sea. Mélisande recognizes it as the one that brought her. She believes it will sink. After Geneviève has left to look after Yniold, Golaud’s son from his first marriage, Pelléas offers Mélisande his hand to guide her. He says that he may have to go away the next morning. She asks him why.

Act II
Scene 1 – A well in the castle gardens
Pelléas brings Mélisande to a shaded well, out of the oppressive heat. Mélisande’s long hair falls into the water. Pelléas asks her about her first meeting with Golaud. She plays with the ring Golaud gave her; she throws it too high and it falls into the well. Mélisande asks Pelléas what she should do. He replies that she should tell Golaud “the truth.”

Scene 2 – A room in the castle
Mélisande sits beside Golaud, who is injured. He had been thrown from his horse as the clock chimed noon, the same time Mélisande lost the ring in the well. Mélisande says she is unhappy in the castle and wants to leave. As Golaud tries to comfort her, he notices her wedding ring is missing. Mélisande says she must have lost it in a cave by the sea where she went looking for shells for Yniold. Golaud demands that she find the ring, and that she take Pelléas to help her.

Scene 3 – A cave
At night, Pelléas accompanies Mélisande to the cave. The moon casts light inside, revealing sleeping beggars. Pelléas explains that there is a famine in the land, and that these impoverished people have sought refuge in the cave.

Scene 1 – A tower of the castle
Mélisande combs her long hair at a high window. Pelléas intends to leave the following day and would like to kiss her hand. As Mélisande leans out, her hair falls, and he kisses that instead. He traps her by tying it to the nearby branches of the trees. Golaud suddenly arrives. He angrily tells the pair to stop behaving like children.

Scene 2 – The castle vaults
Golaud forces Pelléas to look into a stagnant well.

Scene 3 – The entrance to the vaults, noon
Golaud warns Pelléas not to continue his childish games with Mélisande. She might be pregnant and mustn’t have any unexpected shocks. Pelléas should avoid her as tactfully as possible.

Scene 4 – In front of the castle, dawn
Golaud asks Yniold what he knows about Pelléas and Mélisande. The boy offers few answers. Golaud lifts him onto his shoulders so that he can see into Mélisande’s room. She is there with Pelléas. Yniold reports that they are looking at the light. Frightened, he struggles and begs to be let down. They leave.


Act IV
Scene 1 – A room in the castle
Pelléas tells Mélisande that his father is recovering his health and has urged Pelléas to leave on his travels. Pelléas and Mélisande arrange to meet for a final time at the well in the gardens.

Scene 2 – The same room
Arkel tells Mélisande that he felt deeply sorry for her when she first arrived, but now hopes for a brighter future. Golaud storms in, bleeding—wounded apparently by a thorn. When Mélisande tries to help him, he demands his sword. Mélisande is terrified. Mocking her innocent demeanor, he grabs his wife by her hair and drags her across the floor. With her husband out of the room, Mélisande tells Arkel that Golaud doesn’t love her any more.

Scene 3 – A well in the castle gardens
Yniold is trying to free a ball from under a stone. He sees a shepherd approach with his flock. The sheep are bleating in fear. He calls out to the shepherd to ask why. A voice replies that this isn’t the way to the fold. Frightened, Yniold runs off.

Scene 4 – The same well, night
Pelléas is joined by Mélisande. They finally declare their love for each other. They hear the castle doors being locked and are resigned to their fate. As they kiss, Golaud emerges from the shadows. He kills Pelléas. Wounded, Mélisande flees, pursued by Golaud.

Act V
A room in the castle
Mélisande has given birth to a baby girl. A doctor is bewildered as to why she is fading away. Alone with her, Golaud asks for Mélisande’s forgiveness. Mélisande maintains her innocence, though Golaud continues to press her for the truth. Arkel returns with the baby. Mélisande sees that the baby doesn’t cry. Mélisande dies.

Synopsis courtesy of Scottish Opera