Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Difficult Woman

January 17, 2009

Dawn Upshaw, Michael Scuhmacher, Salonen and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

After two false starts Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone finally arrived on the West Coast this weekend after performances in Vienna, London, and New York. This was supposed to have happened almost two years ago but both scheduling conflicts and health issues of the vocalist Dawn Upshaw forced delays. But now that it has arrived, it was clearly worth the wait. Saariaho’s dark, dense, meditative and urgent work has never sounded as good as it did here in Los Angeles where, at long last, all of the intended players came together at once. Upshaw was riveting in the solo role of a woman contemplating the beauty and tragedy of the life of Simone Weil. Peter Sellars’ minimal staging, which involves a solo dancer, Michael Schumacher, who interacts with Ms. Upshaw in a stark room with nothing more than a door and a writing table and chair was far more effective than the previous incarnation I saw in London. Whether or not this is due to the design of the Disney Concert Hall stage or not, the staged part of this piece was very affecting. But most importantly, Saariaho’s beautiful music finally landed in the hands of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. There is arguably no ensemble more suited for Saariaho's music and these two performances on Thursday and Saturday were gloriously played and sung.

Now to be fair, this is not material that is instantly likable. It is dense, non-narrative, often obtusely poetic, and very serious. It's themes of death and particularly a death in the absence of transcendance are not bright and cheery. This is not Die Fledermaus. However, considering the subject matter, Saariaho's composition couldn't be more appropriate. Before she starved herself to death at the age of 34 in an act of solidarity and protest, Simone Weil was many things, but easy and agreeable were never among them. A woman, likely plagued with mental illness, Weil railed against injustice of numerous kinds in ways often highly detrimental to her own health and safety. She was no idiot, graduating at the top of her Paris class only one place above Simone de Beauvoir. Weil’s writings and opinions could be infuriatingly contradictory and Saariaho and librettist Amin Maalouf have captured this sense by using a narrator/protaganist who is not Weil herself but another woman reading and reflecting on Weil’s life from what may be the position of an at times older and at other times younger sister. The soloist, Dawn Upshaw, only once speaks any of Weil’s own words although they are often present, spoken by another performer as part of a pre-recorded audio track played back during the piece. Upshaw is magnificent here, as she is just about everywhere she performs, and again finds a kindred spirit in Saariaho.

Part of the beauty of La Passion de Simone comes from its sheer density. There is so much going on musically, theatrically, and ideologically in the libretto, that it can feel like one has barely scratched the surface of the work after multiple exposures to the 70-minute piece. There are layers upon layers of music and meaning here to sift through, while the piece flies by. La Passion’s brilliance stems from its demand that you take Simone Weil—a conflicted, difficult woman—seriously for what she has to say even if it isn’t always right or put in a way that is easy to swallow. It challenges the listener to be able to put things aside in order to hear the deeper meaning of a message coming from a place one may not want to go. This was another major achievement for not only Saariaho, but Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic and considering the size of the audience at both performances (yes, Saturday was a virtual sell out) a testament to the desire to hear new music by audiences in Los Angeles. And we’re in luck, since the show was recorded for release through iTunes, hopefully in the very near future.


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