«This is a production that enhances the importance of the Bergen International Festival» in the view of Bodil Maroni Jensen, referring to the oratorio La Passion de Simone.
By Bodil Maroni Jensen
Cornerteateret, 31 May 2017, La Passion de Simone
The only one of Kaija Saariaho’s four operas to be produced in Norway is L’Amour de Loin, which was presented in a concert version, first at the Bergen International Festival in 2008 and later in Oslo and Trondheim. Now her fifth work of musical drama, the oratorio La Passion de Simone, has held its Norwegian premiere.
The original version of La Passion de Simone, from 2006, was written for soprano, choir and a large orchestra. The French musical theatre group La Chambre aux échos (The Echo Chamber) commissioned a chamber version in 2013 so they could travel with the work more easily and present it regardless of the production facilities available. This version has been presented eight times, most recently in New York in December as part of a wide variety of events highlighting Saariaho’s works in connection with the presentation of L’Amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera.
The production in Bergen is taking place at Cornerteateret, formerly an industrial building, whose historical features have been safeguarded by the local cultural heritage authorities. This evokes associations with Simone Weil’s experience of factory work, and how she found it both physically and spiritually exhausting.
The libretto is by Amin Maalouf, and can be appreciated for its own literary merits. Short passages relate the story of Simone Weil as a political idealist, an intellectual, who wanted to understand human suffering and improve people’s living conditions. Her approach to gaining insight consisted of personally experiencing other people’s situations. She denied herself material benefits, rejected treatment when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and refused to accept more nourishment than she presumed the French people received as their 1942 war rations. She died of empathy, one could say, at the age of 34.
We need role models like Simone Weil, even if we do not want any of our loved ones to live a life like hers, says director Aleksi Barrière in an introduction. The concert hall is a place that is dedicated to listening, he continues, thus emphasising what was a nearly obsessive rule that Simone Weil lived by: cultivating her ability to focus, in order to understand others.
The intention of the French musical theatre group La Chambre aux échos is to use neither stage sets nor stage curtains, but to tell the stories where we are, in our lives, so to speak. Their productions reveal the possibilities that can arise through paying attention and listening intensely. In the same manner as Simone Weil empathised with the lives of the oppressed, we are given the opportunity to empathise with hers. This is a narrative about a self-sacrificing idealist that inspires us to ask ourselves what it means to die for one’s ideals; what compulsion drove her; whether we could have saved her if we had been there; what our responsibilities are towards others; when we have the right to stop them.
Saariaho’s subtitle for the oratorio is “a musical journey in 15 stations”, with reference to the Christian passion play. A soprano narrates events from Simone Weil’s life, an actor reads excerpts from her writings, and a vocal quartet depicts various figures who played a role in Weil’s life. It all takes place in front of, behind and in part within the ensemble, BIT20, while large newsreel-like images on the back wall refer to specific political events, including contemporary ones.
Kaija Saariaho has said that everything she wrote prior to L’Amour de Loin was preparation for the opera. A similar musical language, with fanciful, drawn-out melodies, is also a basic component of the narrative in this work, and soprano Sayuri Araida is in complete command of the expressive element. The lyrics are conveyed with intense presence, beauty and integrity, and with a sense of control in the vocal presentation that in itself elicits an image of Weil’s uncompromising nature.
The two female members of the vocal quartet interpret their roles with charisma and musical subtlety, while the male voices are paler and less expressive. This might almost have been intentional, as a means of evoking female superiority, but this would have contradicted the humanist message. On the other hand, the staged presentation of the singers is carried out with the same appealing sensitivity to Simone Weil’s fate, thus counteracting the vocal imbalance to a certain extent. Otherwise the elements are extremely well attuned to each other, and merge to form a touching, appalling and thought-provoking whole.
The music itself has clearly dramatic effects, for instance when it thrusts in after whispering, scraping environmental sounds in the beginning, intensified by sudden, stabbing lights. And when the hopelessness escalates, a dense, viscous orchestral tapestry generates a synesthetic feeling that no light can break through.
While the performers in the guest ensemble, including the conductor Clément Mao-Takacs, have all appeared in La Passion de Simone before, this is the first time the members of the BIT20 Ensemble have participated in the oratorio. However, this is not at all apparent. They perform with empathy and with the same understanding of details and the big picture as do the experienced performers. The musicians emerge as characters in the narrative when they stand up in some of the solo passages. Again, this is a dramatisation of the music, this time on the part of the director. The lamentation towards the end is expressively weighty. The rage that arises in the orchestra is ours. When the energy ebbs out, we are back in the environmental sounds: dry, grey, without breath.
When we come out, to the fragrant rhododendrons in Nygårdsparken, we can all probably sense that we have changed a little.
More than one performance of La passion de Simone should have been mounted. This is a production that enhances the importance of the Bergen International Festival, and it is difficult to find a work of this stature in any context, with regard to both its important content and its musical-dramatic quality.
Published in Norwegian in KlassiskMusikk 14 June 2017
Translated by Shari Nilsen