With each passing day, it seems ever more certain that Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) will be considered not just the first great opera of the twentieth century but also the most perfect melding of music and drama in the modern era. There are, of course, those who would quibble with such a suggestion, pointing out that the work owes so much to Wagner’s chromatic harmonies and so-called endless melody as to embrace more a Romantic aesthetic than a modern one. But such arguments miss the larger point: that Debussy’s only fully realized opera is far more a harbinger of what was to come than an apotheosis of preexisting modes, and not just musically.

Rather than suggest certainty and the triumph of various virtues, this opera conveys doubt, impotence, confusion, and frustration. There are no arias or set pieces here to express grand emotions; loosely linked tableaux convey the blurry...

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