Pelléas and Mélisande is a symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck, premiered 1893, about the forbidden, doomed love between a young man and a young woman.
Is it a dream, a fairytale, a fatal love story from the Medieval Ages? The main theme is the cycle of creation and destruction, destiny, love, revenge, death and birth. Golaud’s marriage to Mélisande sets a spiral of destruction in motion, in which the characters cannot escape their fate. It is like a symbolic chamber play, closed off from the outside world. The characters have no innate qualities. They are just reactions to each other, hardly aware of themselves and their actions.
The opera presents a catalogue of symbols. We wish to show these symbols concretely, like a kind of encyclopedia: a huge backdrop will show almost all the visual symbols included in the opera, telling about the meaning of sea, well, fountain, ship, forest, garden, castle, cave, tower, stone, sheep, horse, ring, hair, letter, crown, sword, death, birth.
The scenography will underline the story driven by fate, with few elements: a huge flat circle hanging from the ceiling, turning around itself (1st part), a huge drop-shaped pendulum rotating from the ceiling (2nd part), a few swings hanging from the ceiling for the performers to sit or stand on to make them fixed but unstable at the same time, a revolving stage for the performers to place themselves on to act static and be moved simultaneously. The floor is filled with transparent glass balls, catching the light and the performers when they move slowly around. Forces are in motion, which the characters are controlled by.
The libretto was turned into an opera by Claude Debussy in 1902. The emphasis is on quietness, subtlety and allowing the words of the libretto to be heard. Debussy stays close to the rhythms of natural speech. The characters rarely seem to understand or be able to articulate their own feelings. The deliberate vagueness of the story is paralleled by the elusiveness of Debussy’s music, where the singers alternate between sung speech and accompanied vocal pieces. In Pelléas and Mélisande, the rhythm and pitch of the vocal parts are aligned as closely as possible to Maeterlinck’s original French prose, leaving no room for the singers to interpret them with their own emotional inflections. The staging of the singers will follow the music not allowing them to go to extreme expressions. The beauty will appear in the lighting, the costumes and the composed choreography besides the music and the singing.