Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Talk about La Passion

July 13, 2007

Dawn Upshaw
Photo: Barbican/The Times 2007

Tonight was the second performance of Kaija Saariaho’s recently completed new solo oratorio La Passion de Simone at the Barbican Center in London. This piece was originally composed as part of “New Crowned Hope,” the Peter Sellars-directed arts festival which originally took place last Fall in Vienna to celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday anniversary. The festival is now in London for the summer and many of the works from Vienna are also being performed here including John Adams’ new opera A Flowering Tree. The big difference with these London performances of Saariaho’s Passion are that the soprano whom the work was composed for, Dawn Upshaw, is making her first appearances in the piece. Upshaw had been sidelined for much of the last several months while undergoing cancer treatment and the debut in Vienna was performed by Pia Freund with the Klangforum Wien Orchestra under Susanna Mälkki. Subsequent performances of the work in Los Angeles were postponed until the opening of the 07/08 LA Philharmonic season in October.

But Upshaw, thankfully, is in good health and back on stage and her performances here are riveting and attest to her status as one of the greatest vocalists performing today. Her voice was bright and beautiful and communicated volumes above and beyond the actual libretto written by Amin Maalouf. Of course that is no easy task considering the depth and complexity of this work. Saariaho and her collaborators have delivered another dark beauty in this 70-minute oratorio reflecting on the life and work of Simone Weil. The oratorio is arranged in 15 distinct sections meant to parallel the structure of a passion play. Each section examines a different aspect of Weil's life and while there are recorded spoken passages of her actual words, most of the text performed by both Upshaw and the accompanying choir are not dialog or actual quotes from Weil but responses, commentary, or imagined reactions from family members or others. The piece is minimally staged here by Sellars and was performed on a riser behind the orchestra consisting of a table and free-standing door, as well as a dancer, Michael Schumacher, who periodically augments or responds to Upshaw’s own actions.

When Sellars commissioned these works for New Crowned Hope, he had the idea that different composers would respond to specific works that Mozart wrote in the last year or so of his life. Just as Adams’s composed A Flowering Tree as a response to Die Zauberflöte, Saariaho’s work builds on ideas and themes from La Clamenza di Tito. The piece is also remarkable for the way it builds on Saariaho’s most recent opera Adriana Mater. Like this 2006 work, La Passion de Simone concerns our response to the suffering of others as well as ourselves and how and whether that response can be shaped without violence. While Adriana takes the idea of forgiveness head on, La Passion is more concerned with the idea of agency. How can one respond appropriately to violence and tragedy without more of the same? La Passion de Simone is a non-narrative and more metaphorical piece but raises huge questions and provides the listener with a lot to think about musically and otherwise.

The music which is gorgeous and relates closely to Saariaho’s operatic works, was performed here by the City of Birmingham Orchestra under the direction of Robert Spano. Their playing was strong and engaging, but I often felt that there was a layer missing. The bass parts sounded weak and I felt the piece could have used a little more attention to detail. However, this is still a relatively new work with only a few performances to date and is still growing. I'm also not convinced how much the rather minimal staging and choreography added to the piece overall. I look forward to the LA performances under Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Phil who have proven extremely successful with Saariaho’s scores in the past. Single tickets there will go on sale in the next few months, so don't miss out.

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