> Opera and Oratorio
La Passion de Simone
Upshaw; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Tapiola Chamber Choir,
Salonen. Text and translation. Ondine ODE 1217-5
Whether Saariaho's Passion de Simone is an opera, an oratorio or something else makes no difference. Although it is sometimes performed in a staging by Peter Sellars, the score on its own makes a fulfilling experience. Saariaho and her librettist Amin Maalouf have created a response to the life of Simone Weil in fifteen "stations," nodding to the idea of a Bach Passion, but fifteen "meditations" would also have been an appropriate term. There is one solo singer, a soprano, who does not portray Weil but addresses her as an inspiration. Weil is present in her own spoken words, here discreetly voiced by Dominique Blanc in faint but elegant tones suggesting that Weil is already dying during the entire duration of the piece. The libretto is brief, with the words carefully chosen, in the manner of a radio play. Halfway through the piece, soprano and speaker briefly unite on the same text. A chamber choir provides a larger, public context for the solo singer, again in the manner of a Bach Passion.
Saariaho's earlier operas, which are longer than the sixty-six-minute Simone, do not give up their gifts easily. Her rhythmic sense in those works, specifically that they are keenly written to appear as if they didn't have any rhythm, requires the listener to make an almost physical surrender to the metabolism of her compositional processes. Simone isn't quite like that. It is more akin to Saariaho's song cycle for Karita Mattila, Quatre Instants, in which the looping, occasionally soaring vocal line is strung like garlands around a clearer musical pulse. Saariaho's music has often shown the influence of Messiaen only in covert ways, but here, particularly in the scenes depicting Weil's choice of factory work, the choral writing and the harmonic vocabulary show it overtly. In the fourteenth station, Weil, by choice, dies of starvation. Saariaho's implacably regular percussion strokes transform the act into something of a ritual.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, long a champion of Saariaho's music, is the conductor. If such things can be judged from recordings (this one is billed as live) he has done fine work in sorting out the orchestral balances. The seventh station, in which a solo oboe imperceptibly turns into a muted trumpet and Saariaho retains only the highest and lowest orchestral registers, leaving a space in between for the soprano to portray a "fragile flame," is especially well done. In the early years of the CD era, it seemed that virtually every month brought a new release from Dawn Upshaw, many of them carefully-curated programs on the Nonesuch label. Then the world of classical-music recordings changed. Here, she gives a performance of great intention, discipline and energy, and it is delightful to have her back.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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