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October 22, 2003

Singing the Unspoken: A Tale of Forbidden Love


The Red Sox aren't the only Boston team that can fill a house in New York. Just like ticketholders going into Yankee Stadium last week, those entering Carnegie Hall on Monday night for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande" had to walk through a crowd of hopefuls milling outside, all bartering for a spare ticket to this sold-out event.

With the exquisite mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Mélisande, and the renowned Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink at the podium, this concert, the first of three from the Boston Symphony (the series ends tonight), promised to be one of the most rewarding of the New York season. And the promise was completely fulfilled.

The Boston Symphony has always played inspiringly for Mr. Haitink, its principal guest conductor since 1995, and this Debussy opera brought out the best in their working relationship. If "Pelléas et Mélisande," which Debussy completed in 1902, was a breakthrough modern French work, it also looks back to Wagner. The radically static pace of "Parsifal" emboldened Debussy to compose music that was even more timeless and still. Yet reacting against Wagner, against everything opera had been, Debussy composed dramatic music that was intentionally undramatic and subliminal.

While Mr. Haitink drew radiant Impressionistic colorings from the orchestra, steeped by long tradition in the refined French sound, he also plumbed the score for its weighty, Wagnerian resonances. The performance had an eerily calm tension, a quality essential to this story of buried yearnings and guarded secrets in a vaguely medieval setting, with a libretto adapted from the play by the Belgian symbolist author Maurice Maeterlinck.

The wistful beauty and wondrous nuances of Ms. Hunt Lieberson's singing were ideal for the mysterious Mélisande, whom the widower prince, Golaud, discovers lost in the forest outside his castle, weeping, fearful and utterly evasive. What she is running from we never learn. Taking refuge in the older Golaud's love, she joylessly marries him, only to find her emotional barricade threatened by Golaud's handsome young half-brother, Pelléas.

Every phrase Mélisande sings must shimmer with ambiguity, and Ms. Hunt Lieberson hauntingly conveyed this quality. When she forlornly told the suspicious Golaud that she thought that the sullen Pelléas did not like her, you understood the uneasy truth lurking beneath her self-deception.

The role of Pelléas falls awkwardly on the divide between the tenor and baritone ranges. This performance offered the appealing British baritone Simon Keenlyside as Pelléas, and in certain high-lying passages his voice seemed hard-pressed. But his warm and plaintive sound affectingly suited the role. In the scene in which Pelléas smothers his face in Mélisande's long tresses, which she lets fall from the window of her tower bedroom, Mr. Keenlyside's quivering intensity, Ms. Hunt Lieberson's veiled longing and the suppressed stirrings of the orchestra under Mr. Haitink made this music seem more dangerous than ever.

Though the baritone Gerald Finley's voice was rather light for the brooding Golaud, he compensated with dark and volatile singing. The bass John Tomlinson brought earthy, Wagnerian power to his portrayal of the aging king, Arkel. Also fine were the dusky-toned contralto Nathalie Stutzmann as Geneviève, the mother of Pelléas and Golaud; the sweet-voiced boy soprano James Danner as Yniold, Golaud's timorous son by his first wife; and the bass-baritone Alfred Walker in two minor roles.

Watching the ovation like a proud papa from a first-tier box was the pianist Emanuel Ax. The concert was part of Carnegie Hall's "Perspectives: Emanuel Ax" series, which continues tonight with the Boston Symphony and Mr. Ax in a program of Wagner, Franck and Debussy.

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