Saturday night’s Cincinnati Symphony concert at the Taft Theatre conducted by CSO music director Louis Langrée had a French accent.
There was music by Debussy, his Prelude à l'apres-midi d’un faune (Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”) and “Nocturnes” plus, the centerpiece of the program, Gabriel Fauré’s Incidental Music for Pélleas et Mélisande, Op. 80 (1898, orchestrated by Charles Koechlin).
There was a multi-media aspect to the program, with a draped cloth as a backdrop onto which colored light was displayed and for Pelléas et Mélisande, the play itself by Maurice Maeterlinck, for which Fauré’s Incidental Music was composed.
In short, it was a night to be remembered and a testimony to the innovation and imagination which Langrée has brought to the orchestra.
Pelléas et Mélisande was part two of a Pelléas trilogy begun last season with Arnold Schoenberg’s tone poem and scheduled to conclude during the CSO’s 2016-17 season with the opera by Debussy.
This year’s theme was “Water” (last year it was “Smoke”) as cascades of water were displayed on the backdrop. Seven actresses came on at the beginning and began washing the floor with buckets of water. Mélisande (singer/actress Naomi McConnell) entered alongside the reduced orchestra on the left, Pelléas (Blake Bernis) on the right. They met in front of the orchestra, depicting Pelléas discovering Melisande in the forest.
The action from there paralleled the story, with musical interludes, some drawn from other works by Fauré. Mezzo-soprano McConnell inserted Fauré’s touching Chanson, and his famous Elegy was performed at the end after Golaud, Melisande’s husband, throws her angrily to the ground and rushes out (again with water gushing) over the backdrop). Peerless cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn was the heartfelt soloist in the Elegy and mezzo-soprano McConnell inserted Fauré’s touching Chanson with the subdued CSO. His familiar Sicilienne (composed in 1893) preceded the action.
Rivers of water again fell over the backdrop to tragic music as Melisande, Goulaud and King Arkel (Frank Corrado) stood silently at the front of the stage as the theatre darkened.
Although the four-movement Suite from “Pelléas et Melisande (1901) is heard frequently, this was the CSO premiere of the staged Incidental Music and the way it was originally performed in Fauré’s time.
The two Debussy works perfectly complemented the program. “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” unfolded slowly and languorously under Langrée’s direction, with Randolph Bowman’s silvery flute setting the tone. The Taft’s superior acoustics (superior even to Music Hall) came into play here, with the offstage horns at the end sounding completely natural. “Nocturnes” was equally successful. “Nuages” featured Christoper Philpotts’ spooky English horn. “Fêtes” took off with a shout. The trumpets in the procession were convincingly faraway sounding, and you could hear every nuance in the score.
The women whose voices were heard in “Sirenes” were seated within the orchestra, creating a compelling blend. After ringing out fully, the voices sank into a soft hum at the end.