La Passion de Simone

La Passion de Simone – Oratorio for soprano, choir, electronics and orchestra [UK premiere]

Dawn Upshaw (soprano)

Michael Schumacher (dancer)

London Voices

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano

Peter Sellars – Director
Martin Pakledinaz – Costume design
James F. Ingalis – Lighting design

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 July, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Kaija Saariaho has come a long way since the works that established her reputation in the late 1980s, where the presence – actual or inferred – of electronics led to the opening-up of instrumental timbre that made her a distinctive presence in the post-Boulez lineage of French (sic) composers. The mid- 1990s saw a decisive change in her priorities – not least with her first works for Dawn Upshaw, whose voice has since featured in several large-scale projects.

Those who heard Saariaho’s opera “L’Amour de Loin” in the Barbican Hall some years ago will know what to expect of Saariaho’s latter-day music, such as was evident in all its strengths and weaknesses with this performance of “La Passion de Simone”.

Outside French-speaking circles, Simone Weil is known less for her writing – a quirky but compelling synthesis of rigorous speculation and quasi-mystical reflection – than through her decision, in August 1943, to starve herself to death as a protest against the barbarity and bloodshed then raging acrossthe world. An act of selfless sacrifice or of senseless martyrdom? Is martyrdom, indeed, anything other than senseless? Saariaho does not confront these questions; rather, her approach is to place Weil’s thinking in relief – so emphasising the motivation whereby she arrives at her fateful decision.

With this in mind, the work’s format of 15 ‘stations’ is significant, for all that the abstract nature of both Weil’s thinking and Saariaho’s music makes it a ‘Passion’ in only the most general religious sense. Nor, as the composer has herself pointed out, is this an oratorio as such – there being only one vocal soloist, as well as an offstage choral contribution that, while often extensive, is much closer to that of Greek chorus than active congregation. The other solo role is that of the dancer who represents a figure (intriguingly) poised somewhere between angelic visitation and a manifestation of conscience.

Formally, the work is problematic in that its evolution seems intermittent and unfocussed. The initial two-thirds are concerned with Weil defining just what her role in life is and how it might best be realised. The outbreak of war and her seeming inability to make a positive contribution necessitate her ultimate act, but it is here that the allusion to external events becomes intrusive in the context of the piece as a whole, which impedes continuity and undermines coherence just as the Passion is nearing its climax. A further impediment is the pre-recorded interpolation of extracts from Weil’s writings, an addition that fails to crystallise their meaning with regard either to what is being played out on the stage or in the music. The latter is typical Saariaho in its luminous density and fastidious attention to timbral and textural shading, but the inner vitality that once informed her instrumentation is too often at a premium – especially as outward rhythmic incisiveness clearly remains foreign to her art.

The performance has much to recommend it. The soprano part being tailor-made for Dawn Upshaw means a smooth elegance in the middle register, with brief forays to the relative extremes of the vocal compass, and an unaffected eloquence of characterisation that Upshaw responds to in full measure. Directed by Peter Sellars, the production leaves an austere impact in keeping with Weil’s dilemma – the protagonist alone in a sparsely-furnished room whose door is a threshold into another world and through which the dancer makes his appearances. This latter is acquitted with assurance by Michael Schumacher, his agile choreography intensified against James F. Ingalis’s lighting; the only proviso being that the glare often obscures the surtitled translation of Amin Malouf’s finely-honed if occasionally sententious libretto. Positioned front-left (facing the stage) in the first tier, LondonVoices in command of the diaphanous, often Messiaenic choral writing, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is equally responsive to the disciplined enthusiasm of Robert Spano. The spoken component was thoughtfully enunciated by Dominique Blanc, and it is not wholly her fault if the result feels redolent more of French ‘new-wave’ cinema than a metaphysical artwork for the present.

As a ‘musical journey’, “La Passion de Simone” leaves a mixed impression – not least because Saariaho’s music is too sensuous to fully capture the plangency of Weil’s thought; too circumscribed emotionally to fully convey the impact of her actions. It remains a serious exploration of the crux between the rational and irrational; divine and nihilistic – and, as such, requires to be experienced in performance.

  • Second performance on 12 July at 8 o’clock
  • Barbican

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