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Simone says...and sings...and dances

New York
Rose Theatre, Lincoln Centre
08/13/2008 -  & August 15*, 17
“Mostly Mozart Festival”
Kaija Saariaho: La Passion de Simone

Dawn Upshaw (Soprano), Michael Schumacher (Dancer), Dominique Blanc (Spoken Text)
London Voices , Terry Edwards (Music Director), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki (conductor)
Peter Sellars (Director), Martin Pakledinaz (Costume Design), James F. Ingalls (Lighting Design), Timo Kurkikangas (Sound Design), Diane J. Malecki (Executive Producer)

D. Upshaw & M. Schumacher (© Tristram Kenton)

Our Mostly Mozart Festival this year has turned into a Mostly Finnish and Especially Saariaho Festival, which is hardly a bad thing at all. Ms. Saariaho is not only one of the outstanding composers of this century, but a woman whose voice is genuine, whose vision is both artistic and humane, and who has gathered a stable of great musicians around her the way, say, Martin Scorcese has his favorite actors who come at his beck and call.

Not only are we fortunate to hear her works with their intended performers (the Emerson String Quartet, cellist Anssi Karttunen, soprano Dawn Upshaw, conductor Susanna Mälkki, director Peter Sellars), but the composer has been around for every concert, answering questions participating in seminars, being as charming as possible.

All of which is saying that The Passion of Simone, based some on the life of Simone Weil, but far far far more on the long drawn-out death and literary resurrection of Simone Weil, could have been a marvelous oratorio..In fact, one of the 21st Century examples of a genre which should have died out two centuries ago.

I say that because the music is sometimes ravishing, it was sung and played with incredible beauty by Ms. Upshaw, the London Singers and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. And something went terribly wrong. Most of which can be laid at the feet of that iconoclast’s iconoclast, Peter Sellars.

Back to him later. First to the libretto from another one of the composer’s favorite writers, Amin Maalouf. His talent as a novelist and librettist is well established. Here, though, he has taken some of Ms. Weil’s aphoristic writings, spoken by the electronic voice of actress Dominique Blanc, and it is spoken beautifully. It also has the particularly 20th Century fault of French writers that they created enigma after enigma after enigma, and they expect us to make something of it.

“Things which exist,” said Ms. Weil, “are not worthy of our love. Therefore we must give love to things which don’t exist.”

Uh…yeah, I mean “Certainement”. I mean, really?

This is repeated at the beginning and end, but is represented of other paradoxes about love, sacrifice and all things which have made French philosophers after Montaigne such dregs on society.

Anyhow 75 minutes of Ms. Weil’s words, as well as Ms. Upshaw as Ms. Weil’s sister who mourns Simone’s death is a lot of words, and if I am a Philistine for finding this all nonsensical, so be it.

The truth is also that the libretto deals with death, dying, suicide (Ms. Weil’s particularly inane suicide since she didn’t want to eat more than French children or Jewish prisoners could eat) and a good book to get out of it. (Most of Simone Weil’s words were published after her death.)

One more negative comment before the music. The work is officially described as “A musical journey in 15 stations” (as in Stations of the Cross, another paradox for the secular Jewish Simone Weil). It should have been a monodrama with chorus, or a plain oratorio. The glorious Ms. Upshaw could have taken her place in front of the orchestra, the chorus could have been behind, and the work would have soared with the fluttering beauty which Ms. Saariaho has provided.

Instead, Mr. Sellars decided to make it a drama. The set is an old table and a door which leads to a symbolic nowhere. Ms. Upshaw, one of the most lovely people on any stage, comes on with mousy 1940’s hair, a drab dress and no makeup. She looks like a concierge. She lies down, stands up, writes in a book, tries to enter through the door, gets pushed back and finally points to the finished volume of writings with a kind of goofy smile.

But even that would be all right, save that Mr. Sellars has added a dancer, Michael Schumacher, who doesn’t dance but behaves like that most dreadful of all animals, the Mime. He tiptoes behind Ms. Upshaw, grabs her, kisses her, lies down behind, he does marching steps when they are singing about war, and he stands behind that door and pushes back on it (without touching the door: as I say, he is a mime).

Distraction is an understatement. He distracts mainly from the music. Those in the audience who didn’t know French would have to glance at the English surtitles, down to Ms. Upshaw, watch the dancer prancing, and finally—almost as an after-though--listen to the music. My guest for the evening wisely stopped looking at the stage after ten minutes, and simply let the music absorb him.

Those who do know French understood little, since the music (even with amplification) followed the singer so closely that only the consonants could be heard.

Yet I could still imagine this music in all its beauty, since Ms. Saariaho is the master of her large orchestra. The sounds filled Rose Theatre, they pulsed with agony, they presented textures which were thick yet gossamer in hue, which did indeed have the kind of anxiety and urging which Bach presented in his own Passions.

In this case, though, I would love to hear the work on disk. I don’t wish to know the words, nor see a dancer or look at Ms. Upshaw as a drudge. As in Tuesday’s Notes On Light, the composer understands both grave and gratity, kinetic energy and quantum mysteries. She is also highly visual in her music, and needs no extraneous props and harlequinades to weave her magic.

Harry Rolnick



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