Debussy had planned on writing an opera for some time prior to Pelléas et Mélisande. Much earlier he had remarked, “For a long time I had been striving to write music for the theatre, but the form in which I wanted it to be was so unusual that after several attempts I had given up on the idea.” And in a letter to Ernest Guiraud in 1890 he wrote: “The ideal would be two associated dreams. No time, no place. No big scene […] Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome […] My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes. No discussion or arguments between the characters whom I see at the mercy of life or destiny.” [i]
However, it was not until Debussy discovered the new Symbolist plays of Maurice Maeterlinck that he found a form of drama that answered his ideal requirements for a libretto. [ii]
Debussy wrote no arias, no set pieces, but composed instead a seamless flow of melodic recitatives and orchestral interludes. The music is some of Debussy’s most evocative: hushed harmonic waves, moving in parallel motion, creating tension that is not ever entirely resolved. The voices are set onto this bed of orchestral washes, and sing-speak the lines (which Debussy took directly from the play).
The story revolves around a love triangle between Melisande and two brothers. Prince Golaud, grandson of King Arkel of Allemonde, the older brother marries Mélisande, but Pelleas, who is much closer to her age, is her true soul mate. The opportunity for tension because of this dynamic is great, and Debussy’s music only serves to heighten it, despite there being no overt dramatic arias or other traditional operatic moments.
Roger Désormière’s historic version from 1941 can be found in several iterations, but the easiest to find is probably the EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” released in 2006. There is another, arguably superior transfer, on the Andante label released in 2002.
More recently, Claudio Abbado conducted what many feel is the best overall version in 1992 with the Vienna Philharmonic. For some reason, this recording is priced significantly higher than the others, but it is worth it.
Herbert von Karajan recorded this opera in 1978, also available as an EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century”.
There is a serviceable Pelléas et Mélisande on Naxos, led by Jean-Claude Casadesus, released in 1997. Be advised that it comes with no libretto. However, reading a synopsis is probably enough information to more than enjoy the work, even if knowing the work more intimately will ultimately provide you with much more enjoyment and appreciation of what Debussy accomplished.
There are also several excellent choices on DVD.
Boulez, 2002; Andrew Davis (Glyndebourne), 2005; Natalie Dessay, Bertrand De Billy, 2010; and Nikolaus Lehnhoff, 2013. But the one I like the best, despite it being the least traditional, is the one staged by Robert Wilson and directed by Philippe Jordan, released in 2013 from a 2012 production.
To sum up, audio recordings I would suggest to consider would be the Désormière (this is tantamount to mandatory) and Abbado, and the Robert Wilson DVD.
[i] Wikipedia article, Pelléas et Mélisande (opera), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pell%C3%A9as_et_M%C3%A9lisande_(opera), accessed 04/24/2015.