Salonen, Chicago Symphony and stellar cast deliver a haunting and memorable “Pelléas”

May 19, 2015
"Pelleas and Melisande" by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1910.

“Pelleas and Melisande” by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1910.

“If I was God,” says the aged Arkel near the end of Pelléas et Mélisande, “I would have pity on the hearts of men.”

There isn’t much divine mercy in the world of Debussy’s sole opera, a bleak universe of shadows where the innocent romance of the title lovers is misinterpreted by a hostile and uncomprehending world, leading to tragedy.

Pelléas et Mélisande has not been performed in Chicago since the last Lyric Opera outing in 1992. The opera, like many, is long overdue for local revival.

But it’s hard to believe that any company could do better than the haunting and transcendent concert performance given Thursday night by a first-class cast, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The middle program of the CSO’s “Reveries and Passions” festival of French music, this CSO Pelléas was perfectly realized in nearly every aspect and gave Chicago audiences one of the finest musical events of the year.

Even with a typical operatic scenario of forbidden love, Pelléas, adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play of the same name, is distinctive in its lack of dramatic cliche. The text is allusive and often mundane, concerned with surface trivialities, poetic imagery, and (often impenetrable) symbolism. What is unspoken is conveyed in the restless orchestral textures, which paint the characters’ unexpressed feelings and conflicting motivations. An existential sadness hovers over this world of pervasive darkness and unease. “I am unhappy,” says Melisande more than once, which is the only plausible reaction to life in this strange and unfeeling universe.

The presentation at Orchestra Hall offered a virtual model of how to effectively present opera in concert. With the house lights down, the right theatrical atmosphere was set. Gerard McBurney’s efficient direction moved the singers on and off stage fluidly, aided immensely by the evocative lighting and projections of Keith Parham and Mike Tutaj, respectively.

The only miscalculation was McBurney’s inclusion of brief spoken introductions and excerpts from Maeterlinck’s letters to open each act. Though well read by Oscar-winning actress (Hannah and Her Sisters) Dianne Wiest, the didactic nature of the readings clanged with the subtle mystery of Debussy’s score, and made a long evening unnecessarily longer.

Considering that two singers in leading roles bowed out of these concerts due to illness, the ensemble cohesion and dramatic consistency of the cast proved even more remarkable.

Subbing for an ailing Christine Rice, Jenny Carlstedt was a wonderfully affecting Melisande. At times the Finnish-Swedish singer’s diction was cloudy and her light mezzo-soprano didn’t always project clearly to the back of the lower balcony. But in her U.S. debut, Carlstedt conveyed the vulnerable sadness of the mysterious waifish girl. Her flexible voice and credible stage characterization were especially touching in the fragile, otherworldly tone of Melisande’s final moments.

Stephane Degout, a memorable Papageno in Lyric Opera’s Magic Flute of 2011-12, proved equally inspired as the strange and doomed Pelleas. In addition to his idiomatic singing, the French baritone brought quicksilver agility and virile heft to a character that can often seem weak and effete. Degout was at his finest in the love scenes with Carlstedt’s Melisande, delivering ardent and impassioned vocalism.

Sir Willard White was originally slated to sing the role of Pelleas’ elderly grandfather Arkel, but was pressed into service as Golaud when Eric Owens bowed out due to illness.

The finest Porgy of his generation, the veteran bass-baritone was simply magnificent Thursday night, sounding as strong and commanding as in the justly celebrated 1993 Glyndebourne Porgy and Bess led by Simon Rattle (fortunately preserved on CD and DVD [EMI]). With French as exquisite as the native cast members, White’s long experience in the role of Melisande’s husband was consistently manifest.  He etched a powerful portrayal of the mercurial Golaud—the most compelling character in the opera—in all his suspicion, frustration, violence and agitated remorse. Why haven’t we heard this wonderful artist in Chicago more often?

Promoted to the role of Arkel from the two smallest roles, David Govertsen brought apt sonorous gravitas to the pronouncements of the elderly but wise paterfamilias. With her cap and suspenders, the petite soprano Chloe Briot was charming and dramatically credible as the boy Yniold.

Contralto Elodie Mechain made a sensitive Genevieve and Bradley Smoak displayed an impressively deep and rounded bass in the small roles of the Doctor and Shepherd.

But it was the extraordinary playing of the orchestra under Salonen that sealed the evening. Restless, mysterious, and unsettling, all the dark beauty of Debussy’s opera was conveyed with transparent textures and Gallic elegance.  “Revelatory” is a strong word but Salonen and the orchestra so naturally and seamlessly conveyed the richness and melancholy eloquence of Debussy’s greatest score that it was as if hearing it for the very first time.

Pelléas et Mélisande will be repeated  7 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

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