Lost in the forest, Golaud discovers a mysterious woman who is weeping near a pool. He tries to help her and find out who she is, but she will only tell him her name; Melisande.
The fantasy kingdom of Allemonde is ruled by Golaud’s grandfather, the aged King Arkel, whose castle is bleak and unwelcoming; the very stones are filled with foreboding. He is attended by his daughter-in-law, Genevieve, who reads him a letter, sent from Golaud to his brother Pelleas, asking that Pelleas plead with Arkel to accept his new marriage to Melisande so that they both might return to the castle and be a family. Arkel’s age and wisdom let him forgive Golaud’s rashness and they welcome Melisande.
When Melisande and Pelleas meet there is immediately a spark between them. Golaud’s suspicions are raised when he finds out that Melisande has lost her wedding ring, which mysteriously happened at the exact moment that, elsewhere, Golaud fell off his horse and was wounded. He goes to great lengths to try prove that his wife and brother are having an affair, including using his son (from a previous marriage) to spy on them. Finally, his suspicions and jealousy put him in a rage and he confronts Melisande, dragging her across the floor by her hair, before seeking out his brother and stabbing him.
As he sits at the bedside of his dying wife, Golaud begs her for forgiveness, but he knows that remorse for his actions cannot take them back. The doctor reassures him that he did not cause his wife’s sickness; she has been sick for several days, since giving birth to their daughter. She takes her last breath, just as her newborn daughter is brought to her, to which Arkel only says; ‘C’est au tour de la pauvre petite’ (it is the little one’s turn now).
Debussy gives Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play of the same name a beautiful Romantic score, using his unique Impressionist style to give a shadowy and mysterious depth to this brooding fantasy.