A medieval motif, a love triangle, jealousy and death – ingredients which are in both Richard Wagner's music drama Tristan und Isolde and Claude Debussy 's lyrical drama Pelléas et Mélisande – but what differences there are in musical language! The French composer regarded his only completed opera as an antidote to the opulent musical theatre of his German colleague, someone he initially admired but from whom he later distanced himself. Debussy's credo: “Music begins where the word ends, it expresses what cannot be said; I want it to appear to arise from the shadows and indeed sometimes to return to them.”

The perfect work for Debussy

Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pelléas and Mélisande, premiered in 1893, was felt by Debussy to be an ideal model for his new form of opera. The mysterious, dream-like love triangle between the enigmatic, elven Mélisande and the Knights Pelléas and Golaud is considered a key work of symbolism, a movement which emerged in France in the late 19th century as a counterpart to materialism and positivism, and is a precursor of surrealism. The ambiguity of the characters, the oppressed, unspoken interpersonal conflicts open the way for Debussy's new musical language. “I'm trying to move the audience by the simplicity of the vocal parts and the discretion of the orchestra; I have a horror of the brutal effects sought after by my predecessors.” Debussy sets text in a reciting, declamatory style, modelled on natural speech patterns. The musical sound should not be more powerful than the sound of a natural conversation, and he creates a light, flowing orchestration which never overpowers the singer. While there are also motifs that characterise the protagonists and emotional states, Debussy uses these very sparingly, and are often merely hinted at. There is none of the bold, symphonic development which we are familiar with from Wagner. Debussy discovered silence as the most intense means of expression: When Pelléas and Mélisande confess their forbidden love in the fourth act, all instruments fall silent...

A key work

It took the composer almost ten years before he was able to present his work to the public. And although there was controversy at its premiere in 1902, music experts recognised the special value and novelty of the piece. With the work, Debussy established a reputation as one of France's outstanding composers, and Pelléas et Mélisande is regarded as his key work. The piece has also played an important role in the careers of Peter Sellars and Sir Simon Rattle: In 1993, the two of them produced the piece for De Nederlandse Opera with Philip Langridge and Elise Ross in the title roles. Debussy's work also accompanied Simon Rattle afterwards in his artistic career: In 2006, he performed the piece with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Salzburg Festival and in concert at the Philharmonie. He also made his debut with the work at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in 2008, and at the New York Met in 2010. And now, with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars are once again working together on a performance of Pelléas et Mélisande. In his capacity as Artist in Residence, Peter Sellars will direct a semi-staged production of Debussy's masterpiece. The main roles will be sung by the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, the baritone Christian Gerhaher and the bass-baritone Gerald Finley.