Presenting concert versions of operas is inherently risky business. In the absence of the usual trappings of a staged performance – costumes, sets and lighting – they stand or fall on the quality of the singing and the orchestra. Call it bravado or genuine confidence, it was a bold move for Kent Nagano to open his 10th season as Music Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (OSM) with a concert version of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and he came up trumps.

Kent Nagano © Felix Broede
Kent Nagano
© Felix Broede
In addition to Debussy, composers who responded to Maurice Maeterlinck’s tale of woe about love and jealousy include Fauré, Schoenberg and Sibelius, whose compositions occurred within about a decade at the turn of the 20th century. Among them, Debussy’s opera is by far the largest scale work and most ambitious. It marked a new milestone in operatic development, with the composer himself describing it as “après Wagner et non pas d’après Wagner” (post Wagner but not derivative of Wagner). Devoid of anything that resembles an aria, the opera is a stream of dreamy recitative-cum-singing which heightens the sense of mystery and vagueness at the core of the drama.

As the story unfolds, questions about Mélisande’s identity remain unanswered. All we can do is surmise that she must have some aristocratic roots, having dropped her crown into the water by the side of which Golaud finds her. Shortly after her lightning marriage to Golaud, she falls for her half-brother Pelléas, triggering a series of unfortunate events that lead to her demise.

All in all, the singing was superb. Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s appearance as Geneviève, Golaud and Pelléas’ mother, was a little more than a cameo role, but she made her presence felt by projecting an irresistible air of majestic authority. Her warmth and éclat added life to the cold and dreary world of Arkel’s castle. Her soothing, fulsome and plush tone provided maternal reassurance and stability to a family in sickness and doubt.

Philippe Sly excelled as the impetuous hot-head Golaud who married Mélisande after a chance meeting in a forest but yet was afraid to bring her home without his grandfather’s approval.  His firm grip of the melodic line and strong delivery shaped the character well, but was not so forceful that it rendered incredible his contrition for killing Pelléas in a jealous rage. As he covered his face in the final scene, he evoked pity more than disgust.

King Arkel of Allemonde’s power is clearly on the wane. He is rapidly losing his eyesight, despite the myth about the miraculous power of the “Blind Man’s Well” to cure blindness. It is into this well that Mélisande drops her wedding ring, putting her on the inexorable path to her tragic fate. Despite his plan to marry the widowed Golaud to a princess to put an end to a long-standing feud, King Arkel helplessly accepts the reality of Golaud having taken Mélisande as his wife. The booming resonance of Nicolas Testé’s voice put a brave face on the king’s declining fortune, yet rang hollow in its lack of authority. On the other hand, his portrayal of the aging monarch had an edge of compassionate wisdom about it.

The much maligned Yniold, Golaud’s son from his previous marriage, is a hapless victim of his father’s jealousy, forced to spy on Pelléas and Mélisande. Florie Valiquette came across a little too mature and overly confident for the character, not quite suggesting that he was constantly under Golaud’s thumb.

Fresh from their collaboration in Christophe Honoré’s Opéra de Lyon production earlier in the year, Hélène Guilmette and Bernard Richter worked like a well-rehearsed couple, the former exuding the mysterious sensitivity of a gullible woman unable to take control of her destiny, and the latter an emotionally feeble underdog lured into an amorous deathtrap. Both their voices are relatively slender and supple, perfectly dovetailing into each other for the tasks at hand. As for Mélisande in her deathbed, Ms Guilmette could have added a dash of instability to heighten the drama.

The orchestra under Kent Nagano savoured every bit of tonal delicacy, peeling away the veil of mystery in the score and bringing out the richness in colour. Credit is due to his ability to hold the elements together that the sense of fluidity never gave way to desultoriness.

By all measures, the OSM pulled off a feat in its performance of Pelléas et Mélisande, signaling an auspicious start to the new season.