Saariaho masterpiece luminously brought to stage – Outstanding premiere of La Passion de Simone at Tampere Hall

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On Sunday, the ten-day festival, devoted to the music of Kaija Saariaho came to its radiant finale at Tampere Hall, with the Finnish premiere of the ensemble version of La Passion de Simone (2006/2013).

Originally scored for large orchestra and chorus, with solo soprano, the reduced version retains the solo part, but features an ensemble of nineteen musicians and four singers. In addition, the spoken text, pre-recorded in the original, is spoken by an onstage actor in the ensemble version.

The original version was premiered in Vienna in 2006, at Peter Sellars’ New Crowned Hope Festival. The impetus for a reduced version of La Passion de Simone came from conductor Clément Mao-Takacs and director Aleksi Barrière, the artistic directors of La Chambre aux échos, a Paris-based music theatre company. The idea had been brewing in their minds ever since the Vienna premiere.

After developing the consept somewhat further, Mao-Takaks and Barrière approached Saariaho, who endorsed the idea. According to the composer, the process of creating the ensemble version was a surprisingly uncomplicated one.

”By then, enough time had passed since the premiere, and I no longer felt sorry for discarding some of the material of the original. Rather, I felt, I was bringing the very essence of the piece into the surface. I find much more warmth with it in the chamber version. I don’t quite understand, yet, how that is even possible, given that it is the same music in both versions, but nevertheless, the added warmth and the interaction with the audience are totally different.”

Divided into fifteen stations, in reference to to the Stations of the Cross or the Via crucis, La Passion de Simone is, in its essence a passion oratory, a musical tradition originating in the Medieval Christianity, with its most famous examples being, of course, the Bach passions.

The Bach passions can be seen as pinnacles of a long tradition, which then went gradually out of fashion. In the latter half of the 20th century, the passion tradition gained new prominence with Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion (1966) and Pärt’s Passio (1982).

With the new millennium, a series of successful passion adaptations has emerged, beginning with Oswaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos (2000), followed by Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone, David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion (2007), James MacMillan’s St John Passion (2007) and St Luke Passion (2015) as well as John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012).

Unlike most examples listed above, La Passion de Simone is not based on a traditional passiontide story from the Gospels. Instead, it focuses on the life, philosophy and sacrifice of Simone Weil (1909-1943).

In relation to the passion tradition, Amin Maalouf’s libretto assigns the key role to the narrator, sung by a solo soprano. The narrator contemplates on Simone Weil’s life and philosophy, with a passionate attempt to reflect and understand her fate and the choices she made, eventually leading to her death at the age of thirty four.      

Saariaho’s seventy-five-minute score grows organically from its opening pages into an extended musical journey, varying form quasi-static meditations to violent outbursts, with expressive emotional directness unprecedented in Saariaho’s output.

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In the score, a multitude of textures and musical entities follow from the opening material, resulting in an ever-transforming musical structure, reflecting Simone Weil’s road to sacrifice and, in metaphysical sense, resurrection.

The extensive solo soprano part, ravishingly sung by Sayuri Araida, is clad in a beautifully expressive hue, devoid of operatic mannerism.

”I didn’t want to write any brilliance into that role. When there’s such an important message involved, there’s no place for stretching for the high notes”, Saariaho recalled in her recent interview with Adventures in Music.

Following the passion tradition, the choir provides commentary to the solo part. In addition, the voices are used instrumentally throughout La Passion de Simone, with vocalise lines adding special colour to the orchestral fabric.

The four vocalists of La Chambre aux échos, Sandra Darcel, Marianne Seleskovitch, Johan Viau and Romain Dayez sung their parts with dazzling purity and colour. In equal manner, their stage presence was most compelling, providing touching intimacy.

Simone Weil’s stage presence was wonderfully brought to life by the actress Isabelle Seleskovitch, adding yet another fascinating layer to the multi-faced whole. At the core of her sublime performance was the brief duo with Sayuri Araida at the beginning of the otherwise instrumental Huitième station, with their shared line being sung and spoken in counterpoint, accompanied by their only physical interaction, a fleeting hug.

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Aleksi Barrière’s powerful staging was ever rooted in the music and text, with the most natural direction for the dramatis personae, resulting in a most compelling experience. Combining archive footage from the 30s and 40s with contemporary images, there was an intriguing social commentary conveyed through a video screen.

Accompanied by Étienne Exbrayat’s marvellous lighting design, La Passion de Simone was brought onstage in an extraordinary manner, seamlessly integrated into the musical score.

Avanti! performed the score with immaculate idiomacy. With Clément Mao-Takacs at the helm, Saariaho’s ravishing score was brought to life in its every detail. The textures shone in luminous transparency and colour, with an ideal balance between the voices and the ensemble.

Among the most memorable musical moments, there were those beautiful duets with the solo soprano, accompanied by the oboe and the celesta, respectively. In addition, the brief, but instantly memorable factory music in the Cinquième station, demonstrated the superb rhythmic interaction between the ensemble and the voices.

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Superb in every sense, La Passion de Simone provided a most stupendous finale to the wonderful Saariaho festival at Tampere Hall. Lauded with a standing ovation, the production was enthusiastically received by the audience, demonstrating, once again, the power of contemporary music theatre.      

Kaija Saariaho: La Passion de Simone (2006/2013)

 

Avanti!

La Chambre aux échos

Clément Mao-Takacs, conductor

 

Sayuri Araida, soprano

Isabelle Seleskovitch, actress

Sandra Darcel, soprano

Marianne Seleskovitch, mezzo-soprano

Johan Viau, tenor

Romain Dauez, bass-baritone

 

Aleksi Barrière, director

Étienne Exbrayat, lighting

Pauline Squelbut, set design

 

Tampere Hall, Tampere, Finland

Sunday 10 March 2019, 7 pm

 

c Jari Kallio

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