Dating from the last decade of the 19th century, Pelléas et Mélisande points the way into the 20th century. The score is hauntingly beautiful, but there is more to the work than shifting panels of elusive, impressionistic sound. Debussy retains the text of Maeterlinck’s play, and the linguistic subtleties of the French text are matched perfectly by the musical detail. Taking a little time to explore the romantic, elusive world of this opera is particularly rewarding.
Thomson Smillie, a renowned performing arts educator and author of How to Listen, Learn, Love Opera, is informatively radiant in this installment of Opera Explained, performed by the multilingual David Timson. Smillie clearly admires Claude Debussy, the composer of Pelleas et Melisande, and he offers a brief lesson on tonality in addition to Debussy's musical biography. By the end of the episode, listeners will be better able to pick out Debussy's delicate piano textures and impressionistic style. Fragments from the composer's other works like "Clair de lune" supplement the operatic excerpts. Finally, no discussion of Debussy would be complete without examining the profound influence of Wagner on the French composer's work.