Once acquired, a taste for Pelléas et Mélisande easily spirals into addiction. Not even the ever-shifting seascapes of La Mer gave Claude Debussy such scope for atmospherics as the forests and grottos of his only completed opera—and then there’s the enigmatic power of the story. Debussy whittled the libretto down from the play by the Belgian Symbolist (and future Nobel Prize winner) Maurice Maeterlinck, tossing whole scenes while preserving Maeterlinck’s patented incantatory language. At the still center of the poisoned fable hovers the skittish, unfathomable royal waif Mélisande. Married to Prince Golaud of Allemonde, a morose widower who discovers her lost in a forest in the opera’s opening scene, she loses her heart to his younger half-brother Pelléas.
Historical stagings of Pelléas et Mélisande rightly took their cue from medieval romance. At one time, fans in Manhattan could opt for toy-theater realism at the New York City Opera or an evocatively frayed living-tapestry realization at the Met. Now that such literal-mindedness has fallen from grace, two versions filmed in 2021, three months and 500 miles apart, take radically different approaches.