Whether on disc or in the concert hall, it is extremely rare to find performances of the suites of incidental music composed by Fauré and Sibelius for the symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande by Belgian-born Maurice Maeterlinck. For the final concert of the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle’s season, given on May 2 in Durham’s Carolina Theatre, Music Director Lorenzo Muti was even more daring. In collaboration with David Hammond, Artistic Director of PlayMakers Repertory Company, he thought well outside of the box to create an imaginative blending the music of both composers.

With sufficient excerpts from the play to give the scores dramatic context, the non-duplicated incidental music from the two composers was rearranged in proper dramatic sequence as follows: Prelude (Fauré); The three blind sisters, “Mélisande,” “Mélisande at the spinning wheel,” “At the castle gate,” Entr’acte, and “A spring in the park” (Sibelius); Entr’acte and Siciliene (Fauré); Pastorale and “At the seashore” (Sibelius); Entr’acte (Fauré); and “The death of Mélisande” (Sibelius).

The notes, by David Hammond, stood as a model of clarity in explaining impressionists, expressionists, and symbolists in drama and in giving an overview of Maeterlinck’s play.

The spoken text gave only Golaud’s point of view, beginning with Hammond reading Golaud’s letter to his brother Pelléas, describing his finding Mélisande, lost in the forest. Other excerpts gave his reactions to such things as Mélisande’s careless playing with their wedding ring at the well, the growing intimacy of his brother and his wife, etc. The orchestra’s music served to portray aspects of the other two components of the triangle. Hammond was seated stage right behind the cellos and delivered his lines subtly with the proper increasing tinge of doubt and suppressed emotions as Golaud grew more desperate. His miked voice was well balanced with the orchestra and his enunciation was excellent. Soprano Angela Santucci was fine in her short off-stage vocalization. There was no text for this passage, which treats the voice instrumentally, for color.

Muti had prepared the orchestra very well and got alert and responsive playing from all sections. Ensemble was tight and everything was well balanced. COT has played the Fauré Suite frequently in the past but this must have been the first time so much of Sibelius’s original incidental music – eight of the ten numbers (which encompass seven interludes, two melodramas and a song) – were given by our resident professional chamber orchestra. Principal oboist Bo Newsome had a field day with numerous solos that displayed his technical skill and sensitive musicianship. Principal cellist Virginia Hudson had several warmly expressive solos, and Concertmistress Claudia Warburg had a few understated moments. The mix of the delicate and colorful orchestral palette of Fauré with the more monochromatic and elemental one of Sibelius was far less jarring than I had expected. I would not want to experience the music this way every time, but I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to hear it in a dramatic context.

As a sort of musical delicatessen sampler, Muti led one short work by each composer before going directly into the blended Pelléas program. Fauré’s Nocturne (from incidental music to Shylock, Op. 57) and Sibelius’s Romance in C, Op. 42, both for strings alone, provided a nice side-by-side comparison of styles and sound worlds.