It has been fifteen years since Antonio Pappano last appeared at Severance Hall with The Cleveland Orchestra. In the meantime he has taken the reins of the Royal Opera House in London as its music director, as well as the directorship of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. His Cleveland program was a high-octane drama, with two very familiar works, coupled with an undeservedly rare vocal work by the tragically short-lived French composer Ernest Chausson.

The evening opened with Richard Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod, the opening and closing music of the multi-hour opera Tristan und Isolde. The Liebestod is Isolde’s transfiguration, the culmination of her doomed love for Tristan. This performance was of the orchestra-only version, without the soprano voice.

The ensemble seemed tentative in the first quiet moments that need to appear magically out of silence; there were also some intonation problems in the winds right before the first major string entrance. Later in the Prelude, and especially in the Liebestod, Pappano seemed intent on wringing every last bit of drama out of the music, with extremes of dynamics, and wrenching crescendos and diminuendos. The impression left was of Antonio Pappano as a race car driver at the controls of a very high-powered machine, known locally as The Cleveland Orchestra, seeing just how far he could push it. The ensemble complied with his direction, and although there were momentary visceral thrills, the overall outcome seemed exaggerated and inelegant.

French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux made her Cleveland Orchestra debut in Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, (1892–93) with two extended vocal movements surrounding a relatively brief orchestral movement.

Chausson left only a handful of works at his untimely death at age 44 in a bicycle accident. His musical idiom combined the chromaticism of his teacher César Franck and his idol Richard Wagner with French sensuousness and color, hinting at the Impressionist musical style just beginning to emerge. The lush poems set by Chausson are by Maurice Bouchor, well-matched to Chausson’s music. The songs cover a range of emotions from perfumed evocations of lilacs in bloom, to transfigured love, and the laments of farewell. The orchestral accompaniments are evocative of the texts, with representations of the sea waves, sunlight and heavily scented gardens.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s voice is rich and expressive with enough dramatic power to ride over orchestral climaxes, although there were a few times when the balance tilted in favor of the orchestra. The range of the vocal line is wide, from contralto depths to brilliant soprano notes above the staff. Lemieux displayed a fine sense of the nuances, both the ecstasy and lament, of the poems, and her diction was exemplary. Antonio Pappano’s interpretation of Chausson’s Poèmes was passionate and dramatic, but fitting the texts, without the mannerisms of the opening Wagner work.

Richard Strauss was notoriously henpecked by his volatile wife, soprano Pauline de Ahna, so could anyone blame him for bulking up the heroic persona he insisted was his own in Ein Heldenleben, his last orchestral work labeled as a tone poem? Strauss himself conducted the 1899 premiere of this orchestral showpiece that has become a staple of the repertory. The tone poem, in six interconnected movements played without pause, combines vivid depictions of Struass’s hero and his “companion” (presumably Pauline), as well as the fight between the hero and his adversaries. The final movements show the hero coming to grips with his critics, and finally finding fulfillment. The structure of the movements is organized around the sonata form.

It was in this orchestral masterpiece that Antonio Pappano and The Cleveland Orchestra seemed more united in combining drama and virtuosity. Each of the sections of the orchestra and the principals had moments to shine. If some of the dynamics seemed louder than necessary, there were many sparkling details to compensate. The spiky woodwinds and brass blasts in the “adversaries” movement contrasted with the smoothness of the string melody. Concertmaster William Preucil gave a masterful performance of the extended violin solo in the “Hero’s Companion” section. The frisky solo contrasted with the hymn-like chords in the orchestra. At the end of the work, the coda interspersed harmonic tension with sustained lyricism, the horn solo alternating with the violin solo. One last crescendo in the brass, followed by a long diminuendo to a close quiet cadence closed the performance.

During the bows, Antonio Pappano gave well-deserved solo recognition to the principals and their sections, with each group receiving shouts and whistles of approval.