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SAARIAHO: Only the Sound Remains

DVD Button Koele, Dijkhuizen; Jaroussky, Tines, van Ommen, Nezer; Kimball-Mentzos (dancer); Dudok Quartet, Kankaanranta (kantele), Hoitenga (flute), KleinJan (percussion), de Ridder. Production: Sellars. Erato 0190295753955, 106 mins., subtitles

Recordings Only the Sound hdl 418
Let it linger: Tines and Jaroussky in Amsterdam
© Ruth Walz
Recordings Only the Sound lg 418

FOR TWENTIETH-CENTURY composers, Japanese Noh theater offered an elegant alternative to Romantic opera’s hyperrealism. Britten in Curlew River, Stockhausen in Licht and Messiaen in Saint François d’Assise fully embraced the unreality of opera, infusing it with the stylized ritualism of Noh. For her fourth operatic endeavor, Only the Sound Remains (recorded here at its 2016 Dutch National Opera premiere), Finnish composerKaija Saariaho adopts this hybrid model, setting Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa’s English translations of two classic Noh dramas. They’re eerie stories of paranormal encounters: in Tsunemasa, a Buddhist monk is visited by the spirit of a famed biwa lute player, who strums a ghostly solo; in Hagoromo, a fisherman steals a magical feathered kimono from a tennin fairy, rendering her flightless. Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky takes on the supernatural roles in both. But Saariaho may have placed the tessitura too high for his range. His characteristically milky tone has acidified, and his melismatic vocal line lacks variety of color, though there’s an ethereal moment at the end of Hagoromo, when Saariaho multiplies his avian cadenza a thousand times with live electronics, producing a gorgeous shimmering texture that represents the tennin soaring over Mount Fuji. Up-and-coming American bass-baritone Davóne Tines gives an intensely physical performance, writhing around onstage and striking athletic poses that cast larger-than-life shadows. Saariaho seems better acquainted with his instrument, highlighting his fluty upper register and couching his earthy chest voice in crystalline spectralist harmonies. Her writing for the seven-member chamber ensemble sometimes reverts to vaguely Orientalist tropes, including the very Hollywood gong blow that opens the work. But for the most part, she imaginatively integrates elements of traditional Japanese music into her score. Flutist Camilla Hoitenga convincingly imitates the sharp, breathy attacks of the shakuhachi, and Eija Kankaanranta evokes the koto with dreamy flourishes on its Finnish cousin, the kantele box zither. In place of the Noh jiutai chorus of chanting narrators, an offstage vocal quartet echoes the soloists with creepy hisses and whispers. 

But this merger of opera and Noh has its constraints. Noh is slow—almost impossibly so. In its original context, this tectonic pace lends the form a hypnotic, otherworldly character: a single moment is stretched out into an eternity, with every subtle bend of the elbow or twist of the foot packed with meaning. In Saariaho’s hands, Noh’s refined language of gradually unfolding gestures is translated into an excruciatingly tedious musical experience. There’s a decadent self-indulgence about her style; her luxurious, iridescent sonorities are initially captivating, but they quickly degenerate into a nebulous haze of sound that doesn’t develop. Nothing happens, dramatically or musically, and we’re constantly aware of it. Rather than casting a spell, like authentic Noh, this near-stasis is just dull. 

Saariaho’s usual collaborator, Peter Sellars, attempts to spice things up by inserting a steamy love scene for the monk and ghost in Tsunemasa, and by casting the swanlike Nora Kimball-Mentzos as Jaroussky’s dancing double in Hagoromo. The director seems aware that this stagnant theatrical event isn’t exactly conducive to video, though his solution is somewhat nausea-inducing: to make the production more visually stimulating for a DVD audience, he has the camera pan jerkily across Julie Mehretu’s Pollock-like backdrops. But I doubt that Only the Sound Remains would have fared better as an audio-only recording. Contrary to the title, Saariaho’s music tends to dissipate like perfume, leaving no lasting impression. —Joe Cadagin 



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