Dianne Wiest to weave a spell around Debussy’s ‘Pelleas et Melisande’

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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is spending the month of May performing a series of programs under the umbrella title “French Reveries & Passions Festival,” all led by guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

A formidable undertaking designed to “explore Impressionistic sounds and colors,” it includes performances of the symphonic and operatic work of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Olivier Messiaen. And perhaps the most challenging entry in the festival will be the sole U.S. performances (May 14, 16 and 19) of a concert version of Debussy’s only opera, “Pelléas et Mélisande.” The five-act work — a darkly poetic fairy tale and love triangle, with a French libretto adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play — debuted in Paris in 1902, and is considered a landmark of 20th-century music.

Salonen, principal conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra (where this concert version was performed last November), has gathered a cast that includes baritone Stephane Degout (as Pelleas), mezzo-soprano Jenny Carlstadt (Melisande), bass-baritone Sir Willard White (Golaud) and bass David Govertsen (Arkel). The concert will feature narration written by Gerard McBurney, creative director of the CSO’s popular Beyond the Score series. And creating the concerts’ visual landscape is Mike Tutaj, the masterful Chicago-based video projections designer.

Serving as narrator will be Dianne Wiest, the Academy Award-winning actress whose many credits range from the Broadway and Off Broadway stage (where she recently appeared in “Rasheeda Speaking,” the Joel Drake Johnson play that debuted at Chicago’s Rivendell Theatre), to film (Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Hannah and Her Sisters”), to television (where she played Gabriel Byrne’s psychotherapist, Gina, in the HBO series, “In Treatment,” and where she is soon to co-star with James Brolin in the new multi-generational family comedy series, “Life in Pieces,” on CBS).

‘PELLEAS ET MELISANDE’ When: May 14, 16 and 19 at 7 p.m. Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Tickets: $29 – $216 Info: (312) 294-3000; www.cso.org Run time: 3 hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions

“Maestro Salonen didn’t want applause between the acts in this opera,” said McBurney, explaining the role of narration in the concert version. “This is a mystical piece, and he wanted to be sure that each act emerged from great quietness. He thought that if audiences heard the human voice in those intervals it would focus attention. And he told me to think of the speaker’s voice as a form of memory in a world of shadows or ghosts – the voice of an older woman who was the baby born at the end of the opera, who has never known who her parents were. The text — and they are really a handful of ‘echoes’ — is drawn entirely from Maeterlinck’s own words. The opera itself is sung in French with English supertitles, so the English narration also is a way of turning a somewhat distancing concert hall into more of an intimate theater and sacred space.”

Gerard McBurney, who has devised the narration for the concert version of Debussy’s opera, “Pelleas et Melisande.”

Gerard McBurney, who has devised the narration for the concert version of Debussy’s opera, “Pelleas et Melisande.”

In a recent pre-rehearsal chat with Wiest, a petite woman with cropped hair, the actress blushed a bit as she confessed this was the first time she had ever worked with music, although she had attended opera often with her longtime companion, Sam Cohn, the late talent agent.

“I am tone deaf and unable to carry a tune, but I do know how to use my speaking voice, and how to calm an audience,” said Wiest. “And I learn as I fail.”

“Of course every audience is different,” said Wiest, who will be seated in an armchair, at a table, throughout the opera. “But I can sense the bridge that is needed, and I know when to look out at them, or not. We are still discovering whether I am an actual character, but I see my role as a storyteller, engaged in the act of remembering a dreadful series of events.”

The opera begins as Prince Golaud meets a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her back to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel, where she grows increasingly attached to Golaud’s younger half-brother, Pelléas, and arouses Golaud’s jealousy. Pelléas eventually decides to leave the castle, but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time. As they finally confess their love, Golaud kills Pelléas. Mélisande dies shortly afterward, having given birth to a daughter, and with Golaud still begging her to tell him “the truth.”

Wiest said she had no idea how she was selected to be narrator, but McBurney explained that Maestro Salonen had made a list of three American actresses he’d like for the role, “and Dianne was at the top.” As it happened, McBurney’s brother, Simon (founder of London’s extraordinary Theatre de Complicite) had directed Wiest in the 2008 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.”

Video projection designer Mike Tutaj.

Video projection designer Mike Tutaj.

For projection designer Tutaj the challenge was “to support the storytelling with the minimal means possible, creating tension and movement, and suggesting where we are, but never overwhelming the story. So at moments we are outside the castle, near a well, moving from dusk into evening. Gerard’s wife is a wonderful photographer and I used some of her pictures taken in Scotland.”

“This opera has a tremendous feeling of sorrow,” said Wiest, 67, who bought herself “a long, dark blue, very simple dress” for the performances. “But it’s bigger than that. It’s a sorrow we all partake in, for all of us have deception in us, and worked upon us.”

And if she could sing, what opera would it be?

“Oh, if I could sing I’d be Bob Dylan,” said Wiest, laughing. “His lyrics are poetry, and his songs have been explaining things to me through every decade since I was 18.”

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