The gospel according to Saariaho and Maalouf – Absorbing ritual of La Passion de Simone in Helsinki

Sayuri Araida, Isabelle Seleskovitch, Faustine de Monès, Marianne Seleskovitch, Johan Viau, Johannes Linneballe and Avanti! Chamber Orchestra performing La Passion de Simone under Clément Mao-Takacs in Helsinki. © Markku Pihlaja

As the expression goes, good things come to those who wait. This was certainly true in Helsinki on Thursday and Friday evenings, as Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio La Passion de Simone (2006/2013) was finally given in its semi-staged chamber version conducted by Clément Mao-Takacs and directed by Aleksi Barrière. Joined by the members of La Chambre aux échos collective, led by soprano Sayuri Araida, alongside Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, the Helsinki Music Centre production was a follow-up to the Finnish premiere performance at Tampere Hall back in March 2019.

Rescheduled five times due to various iterations of the pandemic restrictions, the Helsinki staging was certainly worth all the wait. Although heard in its original guise for full orchestra and chorus at the 2007 Helsinki Festival under Esa-Pekka Salonen, the chamber version provides quite different perspectives into the music, although the two scores are notably similar on page. However, the downscaling in scoring yields to heightened stage rendition of the life and writings of Simone Weil (1909-1943), the French philosopher and activist, who died from cardiac failure, believed to be provoked by her self-starvation in solidarity toward the victims of the war.

”In my teens, when I first started to read Simone Weil, I felt that she had experienced so much more than I had at that point, thus making it impossible for me to truly understand her. In reality, she was a very young woman when she died. She had only half of the experience years can bring that I have now. Yet, I still find it hard to understand her. She was such an extraordinary person, with unique mixture of intelligence and sensitivity, resulting in all those ideas that continue to carry a powerful meaning.

Her life and philosophy are, in many ways, so essential again here and now, in our own time. Once again we are in a situation where the prospect of war is upon us, and there is oppression for the weak all around us. And nowadays, we are fully aware of all this. We cannot hide ourselves in ignorance. Therefore, it is important for us to think, what each and everyone of us would be able to do”, Saariaho described her relationship with Weil in our 2019 talk in conjunction with the Tampere production of La Passion de Simone.

Initially commissioned by Peter Sellars for the 2006 New Crowned Hope festival in Vienna, the score was composed directly after Saariaho’s three-year working period on her second opera Adriana Mater (2002-05). The libretto was written by Amin Maalouf, the composer’s trusted collaborator from the opera projects.

Regarding to the shape and hue of La Passion de Simone, the seventy-five-minute musical journey consists of fifteen circa five-minute meditations, or stations, referring to the Christian passiontide tradition of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, with Resurrection added. Thus, the narrative draws parallels between the archetypal renderings of Christ’s passion and that of Simone Weil’s.

The musical practice applied here is certainly rooted in the Bach passions, themselves the apex of a long trajectory of liturgical Eastertide plays. Thence carried on in various guises throughout the nineteenth century, manifesting in musical works such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge (1803/1804/1811) and Richard Wagner’s Parsifal (1877-82), the passion scheme became subsequently transformed into more wide-ranging sonic narratives, staged and concertante alike.

On an alternative timeline lies the tradition concerning the oratorio. Ever since the London days of Handel, the genre has appeared as beguiling mixture of staged opera and concert hall performance, yielding to imaginary theatre of sorts.

In music of our time, the idea of semi-staged passion-oratorio begun to re-establish itself in the beginning of the new millennium, as demonstrated by the world premieres of Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos (2000), the original version of Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone (2006) and John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012).

Based on the life and writings of Simone Weil, Maalouf’s libretto examines the subject matter in fragments, presented in texts sung and spoken. As set by Saariaho, the narrative itself is laid out in somewhat condensed, almost as-is manner, to be juxtaposed by extended meditations on the multi-layered repercussions of Weil’s life and legacy.

In addition to its Biblical connotations, La Passion de Simone revisits some of the themes first staged in L’Amour de loin (2000), most notably those regarding to the idea of love. There is also a great deal of Plato involved in Weil’s texts and life choices, which open up to horizons even wider than those rooted in the core ideas of Christianity. Thus, La Passion de Simone becomes a meditation on the very fundamentals of the Western civilization; universal made particular in Weil’s life journey.

Following the passion-oratorio tradition, the title character is presented only indirectly. The soprano soloist is assigned to quasi-evangelist role, accounting the events as sister of sorts, venturing forth to the limits of empathy and understanding. Although her spoken counterpart, an actor, presents us with quotes from Weil’s writings, in the end she too is somewhat distanced from mere stage personification of the actual Weil.

As one-per-part coro, the vocal quartet adaptation of the original choral part comes off wit enhanced harmonic and rhythmic acuity, while adding up to the intimacy of the stage imagery. In similar vein, the twenty-or-so members of the orchestra deliver an admirably translucent account of the instrumental fabric, giving rise to refined sonorous tapestry.

The fusion of text, music and staging constitutes a multimodal hall of mirrors, where ideas and gestures are extended seamlessly from one sensory realm to the next as harmonic progressions carry over to permutations in imagery and rhythmic cells generate onstage pacing and movement. In this way, the fundamental ambiguity of the libretto becomes implanted through ravishing synaesthesia, to a gripping effect.

The music opens with a subtle pulse set by harp and celesta, while harmonic shapes begin to unravel in solo winds and strings. Following a twenty-four-bar introduction, the soloist delivers her first lines, heralding the Via Crucis of Weil, escorted by the vocal and instrumental ensemble. In contrast, the second station is launched with an impassioned tutti, as the score delves deeper into the story. In the course of the ensuing sections, several textures and colours are evoked, some mist-clad, others in intricate rhythmic shapes, while ideas and realities converse in music and on stage.

At the core of La Passion de Simone lies the eighth station, in which the text is comprised of a single phrase, ”God withdraws, so as not to be loved as treasure is loved by a miser”, spoken and sung simultaneously, paving the way for an extraordinary orchestral meditation. For the first and only time, the soprano soloist and the actor meet onstage, embracing each other before embarking, once again, into their opposite courses; a defining moment in the oratorio.

Isabelle Seleskovitch and Sayuri Araida. © Markku Pihlaja

From there, the dramatic arch begins to hover towards fulfillment; the sacrifice and resurrection in legacy. Following a Weilian method, instead of an analysis, the events are examined with extended meditative focus. Deployed in time, space and music, the text is allowed to dwell in perception, until etched in memory. A ritual of intense contemplation, shared between performers and audience.

Reaching into the auditorium and beyond into the foyer, the Barrière’s stage setup in conceived with translucence, consisting of three staircases and one riser, serving as platform for utmost simplified stage incarnation of Weil’s studio. The visual narrative is thus mostly realized through subtly choreographed movement, enhanced by Étienne Exbrayat’s ingenious lighting design and Liisa Nieminen’s clear-cut costumes, with additional commentary from processed video images, wrought out of archaeval footage and contemporary material, proving the core drama with extended societal commentary.

The solo part was superbly sung by Sayuri Araida, whose stage presence was equally compelling, as was that of the actor Isabelle Seleskovitch’s. Joined by the marvellous vocal quartet of La Chambre aux échos, soprano Faustine de Monès, mezzo-soprano Marianne Seleskovitch, tenor Johan Viau and baritone Johannes Linneballe, Saariaho’s vocal writing was in good hands throughout the evening.

Under Mao-Takacs’s ever-sensitive direction, the score was unraveled in admirable transparency of texture and absorbingly idiomatic pacing. The instrumental fabric was given in compelling virtuosity by the members of Avanti!, providing the orchestral writing with exquisite nuance and colour.

A fulfilling conclusion to Saariaho’s seventieth birthday year, La Passion de Simone presented its audiences with a powerful joint ritual. Given in two fully-packed evenings, the production was awash with contemporary music theatre in its most engaging and invigorating guises; a milestone event in Helsinki.

Avanti! Chamber Orchestra

Clément Mao-Takacs, conductor

Sayuri Araida, soprano

Isabelle Seleskovitch, actor

Faustine de Monès, soprano

Marianne Seleskovitch, mezzo-soprano

Johan Viau, tenor

Johannes Linneballe, baritone

Aleksi Barrière, stage direction

Étienne Exbrayat, lighting design

Liisa Nieminen, costume design

Kaija Saariaho: La Passion de Simone (2006/2013) for soprano, actor, vocal quartet and chember orchestra; Libretto by Amin Maalouf

Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland

Thursday 29 December 2022, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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