Thursday, 11 March 2010

Saariaho operas - why?

Rupert Christiansen reports on Kaija Saariaho's fourth opera, Emilie, in Paris. It's a tour de force for Karita Mattila, who sings for 80 minutes. But all that effort, for what? "Saariaho's mushy modernist idiom – try imagining Pierre Boulez slumming it on a film score – is peppered with pseudo-baroque flourishes from the harpsichord, as well as spooky marimba and electronic effects. Textures are dense and rich, but the flavour is generic: the score never seems specific to Emilie or expressive of her. There's no muscle, no clarity: it all swirls around in a haze. "

L'Amour de loin was interesting because it was different, a sort of mutable mood piece you could drift in and out of. Some nice passages for the baritone, which gave it backbone. When it was staged at the ENO, it was visually gorgeous, the set providing a narrative the opera lacked.

Le Passion de Simone was different. Simone Weil, a middle class intellectual, was desperate to identify with socialist workers. She had such extreme self conviction, that it hardly mattered that the workers weren't moved. During the Holocaust, when people starved in concentration camps, Weil voluntarily starved herself to death. Anorexia elevated to political act. Self regard so intense it swept away realiyty.

Weil is emotive, so you can't really knock an opera based on her. On the other hand, psychologically, Weil's such a character that the dramatic possibilities are infinite. This is perhaps Saariaho's best opera. The music redeems its fundamental inconsistencies of the plot. Blank out the words, (though you shouldn’t) and you have an intoxicating feast of chromatic colour. It’s so vivid and beautiful that, consciously or not, it undermines Weil’s ideas that life is polluting, unworthy "bestiality". Saariaho even manages to incorporate into her music some of Weil’s other ideas, such as the dichotomy between gravity and grace: gravity comes in the dark undercurrents of the brass and winds, for example, and grace in the diaphanous, glistening textures of her writing for strings and percussion. There’s lots of her distinctive exoticism in the gamelan-like passages for marimba, bells and harp. There are some pretentious moments, such as over-long silences between the sections, and passages pushing the same point too long, but on balance, it’s the music that makes this opera.

Then, Adriana Mater. In theory this is an explosive plot: woman raises son born of wartime rape. Decades later, son kills father. This is the stuff of Greek tragedy, but this libretto manages to make the story banal and inconsequential. Saariaho is one of the few composers who has personally experienced pregnancy and childbirth, so you'd hope she has a handle on it male composers don't.

Saariaho’s long lines evolve slowly, their beauty in the gradual process of gestation. Again, there’s a lot of potential in using this style to present a narrative like this, a story that covers a period over 20 years. A friend of mine commented that Saariaho sounds like “Messiaen crossed with Philip Glass” in the sense that her music unfolds organically, like breathing, which is measured and even. But it's been done before, better and since.

And that's about it. There's no sense of narrative, no emotional depth, no sense of turbulent complexity. At the time I heard it I couldn't figure out why it upset me so much, but with the perspective of distance I now understand. The subject is horrible, but the music doesn't engage with it. It's L'Amour de Loin rehashed. At least the world of L'Amour was nice to look at.

Emilie sounds like more of the same all over again. Pregnant woman knowing she's going to die and her life has been wasted. There's great potential in this as drama, but what will Saariaho do with it?

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