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In Review > Concerts and Recitals

L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (5/8/15) & Pelléas et Mélisande (5/15/15)

Esa-Pekka Salonen & Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra embarked on an Impressionistic wallow with French Reveries and Passions, a three-week festival of French symphonic and operatic masterpieces led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Opera lovers flocked to Symphony Center for two events: Ravel’s enchanting L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (seen May 8) and CSO’s first performances of Debussy’s enigmatic Pelléas et Mélisande (seen May 15)

Ravel’s opera was preceded by a charming reading of his Mother Goose Suite. Salonen found an extraordinary wealth of dynamics in this delectable score, which is too often trivialized. The CSO demonstrated impeccable intonation throughout, from the intertwining winds in the opening section through the tricky writing for clarinet and contrabassoon in the “Beauty and the Beast” interlude. A lovely reading of Debussy’s cantata La Damoiselle Élue followed. Soprano Kate Royal voiced Rossetti’s sanctified maiden beautifully while contralto Elodie Méchain and the women of the CSO provided narration to her mournful tale. Projectionist Mike Tutaj effected an image of Rossetti’s painting “The Blessed Damozel” on the back wall above the action.

L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is one of those operas that plays unusually well in concert, being essentially a series of skillfully crafted character portraits. Those meandering oboes deftly set the scene for nursery room boredom before soprano Chloé Briot’s delightfully surly Child held forth. There followed a marvelous series of singer-characterizations. Marie-Eve Munger displayed a killer trill as a flash of Fire to watch out for, as well as a winsome Princess and Nightingale. Royal and Méchain were back as Shepherdess, Mother, and various animals and household objects. Eric Owens was a formidable old tree and Marianne Crebassa a stately Louis XV chair. Tenor Manuel Nuñez Camelino was hilarious as the frenetic old man. Stéphane Degout’s Tomcat was possibly the most endearing of all as he roguishly rubbed his head against the Child for attention, and surreptitiously cleaned his face with his “paw" upon concluding the duet with Crebassa’s Female Cat and resuming his seat. The chorus made a charming thing of the frog’s nocturnal croaking and the young singers of Anima contributed winningly. Salonen’s leadership went some distance in justifying his quoted assertion that “Ravel is the greatest master of orchestration”.

Pelléas et Mélisande easily emerged as the festival’s pièce de résistance, despite a brace of eleventh- hour cancellations. Christine Rice and Eric Owens withdrew due to illness; thus Jenny Carlstedt, who recently essayed Mélisande at Finnish National Opera, scored an American debut while Willard White, announced as Arkel, moved over to Golaud. It flowed seamlessly. Stéphane Degout, performing sans score, clearly has this music in his bone marrow, and created the most idiomatic, affecting Pelléas imaginable. His voice is perhaps a shade darker than the Baryton-Martin Debussy envisioned, but the range is all there. The passion in the timbre above the staff in the ecstatic outbursts of act four was shattering. Carlstedt enjoyed a great success as Mélisande. Her high mezzo fields the necessary shot of silver on top to capture a childlike quality while also conveying a mysterious erotic allure. It was a pity to lose White’s Arkel, but his Golaud was something to treasure, and truly frightening in his manipulation of little Yniold (sung and characterized to near perfection by Chloé Briot). David Govertsen’s Arkel, after some challenge with the subterranean depths of the initial scene, was quite handsomely sung, and the final narration was deeply felt. Méchain was the solid Geneviève. Bradley Smoak’s bass registered keenly as the Doctor and Shepherd.

Tutaj’s projections bathed the space in evocative imagery, from primeval forest and oppressive castle stonework to a widening circle of water as that ring plunged into the well. Pelléas changed the face of composition and Salonen captured the score’s elusive, iridescent quality superbly, which thus rendered its very few forte passages all the more impressive. The final moments were almost unbearable in their exquisite sadness. This was a superb musical experience, and a triumph for the CSO. spacer


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