A pellucid penumbra pervaded Symphony Hall on Thursday night as music director Andris Nelsons led Boston Symphony Orchestra through a thoughtful tripartite program of Boulanger, Debussy, and Puccini.
Lili Boulanger’s short tone poem D’un Soir triste cast a somber shadow from the start. The younger sister to Nadia, the celebrated teacher of 20th-century luminaries, Lili Boulanger became the first female composer to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1913, at the vertiginously young age of 19, but died of illness five years later. Along with its companion piece D’un Matin de printemps and a haunting Pie Jesu dedicated to her sister, D’un Soir triste was one of the very last pieces she completed in the final months of her too-brief life. A wooly melancholy weighs the air like a slate-gray blanket of low-hanging stratus clouds, at once restless and listless. An electrical storm flashes in the distance. The skies clear to the diamantine gaze of indifferent stars as they blink open in the thickening night, and Boulanger issues one last rage against the dying of the light. What might she have achieved with even just a winkling more time?
Debussy’s three orchestral Nocturnes date to the 1890s, when Boulanger drew her first breaths and toddled her first steps. They limn the landscape upon which Boulanger cast her sights and strode forth. Debussy described his Nocturnes as an experimental, painterly “study of gray.” Composed over the same period he tinkered away at his only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, a sprawling study of multitudinous shades of gray if ever there was one, each panel of this triptych presents a miniature awash in its own luminosity. Nuages undulates between the dim blue light and half-light of dreams at dawn. Fêtes flushes ruddy behind a haze of dancing dust as a festive parade advances and recedes. Sirènes beckons in swirls of sinuous quicksilver.
In both Boulanger and Debussy pieces, Nelsons directed a pliant, pensive pacing that, to flip but one single word, brought to mind Rilke’s Eurydice on her final descent to Hades ― certain, gentle, and without impatience. Robert Sheena’s plangent English horn set the tone for a downy, dew-glazed dolefulness that hangs soft as a sigh, and there is a special place in paradise for the delicate goldleaf dazzle of BSO’s three trumpets in perfect pianissimo. The eight women of the felicitously named Lorelei Ensemble voiced the wordlessly watery wiles of Debussy’s titular sirens, gliding in and out of the orchestra’s eddying currents with elusive grace.
The tenebrous tone of the first half set the stage for the second, a concert performance of Puccini’s one-act opera Suor Angelica, which premiered in 1918, the year of both Boulanger’s and Debussy’s deaths. Once the overlooked middle child between the gritty verismo of Il tabarro and the cutesy comedy of Gianni Schicchi in Puccini’s trio of shorts billed as Il trittico, Suor Angelica appears to have enjoyed a recent resurgence. Its success largely rests on the shoulders of the soprano who fills the title role, a noblewoman exiled from her family to a convent to expiate the sin of having a son out of wedlock. When her aunt, the ruling matriarch, comes to demand that she cede her inheritance and reveals that her son has died, Angelica despairs. She applies her herbal skills to poison herself, pleading to the Virgin Mary to deliver her from the damnation of suicide so she may reunite with her son in heaven.
The evening’s star soprano Kristine Opolais just finished a run as Suor Angelica at the Metropolitan Opera this past autumn as part of its centennial celebration of Il trittico’s world premiere. In this BSO reprise, she brought the same searing intensity and some similarly sharp-angled gesticulation. Her Angelica veers darker and starker than many of the historic greats in that role (i.a. Renata Scotto, whose lilac-hued fade-away on the final A of “Senza mamma” should come with a medical advisory: may induce cardiac arrest, cessation of breath). This stems partially from the inherent duskiness of her voice, which, although not especially large, can cut more dramatic than lyrical in character. (Do I hear an Emilia Marty slinking forwards to be born?) Compound with this a certain steeliness that seems to find its ease in “I bleed, therefore I am” scenarios ― as an Act III Mimi, an Act IV Manon Lescaut ― and here we have an Angelica who enters the scene already gaunt and hollowed of hope, whose ingrained despair allows little room for character development. Pivotal moments in “Senza mamma” and “Amici fiori” still pack a punch, but lose a degree of poignancy when Angelica’s heart seems too battered to break from the very beginning.
Violeta Urmana, as the unforgiving Zia Principessa, plied a warmer, softer pulse than other more gravely inexorable aristocratic aunts of the past. Fatma Said’s shepherdess-turned-nun Suor Genovieffa sprouted sweet as a spring daisy, at times too dainty to surmount the space. Abbess Dana Beth Miller’s booming authority compelled one to sit up straight and half expect admonishment ― à la Philip II in Don Carlo ― to Beware the Grand Inquisitor. Monitor MaryAnn McCormick chided her charges with dutiful marmishness. Members of the Lorelei Ensemble once again furnished their voices in the various sisterly roles around the convent, engaging each other with an easy chemistry, affectionate, supportive, and gently teasing.
The orchestra played with vivid lusciousness; I would be loath to lose any of it, but considering the hall’s propensity to absorb vocal lines, a 25% drawdown of instrumental forces would have balanced the singers better. Off-stage choirs, banda, and instrumental soloists discharged their doubly weighted duties with precision and poise.
Standing on its own, and even flanked by its birth siblings in Il trittico, Suor Angelica can struggle to satisfy on both musical and dramatic levels. Counterbalancing with Boulanger and Debussy cleverly deepens the interpretative depth of field and adds a richer palette of shaded coloration, above which the heaven-bound Angelica soared higher and brighter.