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30.3.06

Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho, composerTonight was the big night in Paris, the world premiere of Kaija Saariaho's new opera, Adriana Mater, at the Opéra national de Paris. It was to have been the jewel in the crown of a challenging and adventurous season of opera, the Opéra national de Paris's commission of a new opera by the Finnish composer, whose L'Amour de Loin was such a sensation at the Salzburg Festival in 2000. In fact, it reunited much of the creative crew from that opera: composer Saariaho and librettist Amin Maalouf, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (who replaced Kent Nagano for the Finnish National Opera production, now on DVD), and director Peter Sellars. (I should also note that L'Amour de Loin was dedicated to Gérard Mortier, then director of the Salzburg Festival and now at the head of the Opéra national de Paris.) Critics from a score of foreign countries -- including Alex Ross of The New Yorker, who told me he was supposed to arrive yesterday -- were planning to be there for this massive media event. The unhappy news is coming out of Paris, however, that the premiere has been cancelled. Ben, vive la France!

As one might expect, this being France, the cause is a strike -- not the ongoing student and union demonstrations against the CPE. We can chalk up this annoyance, again, to the intermittents du spectacle, those people who work part-time in the performing arts. This union, whose work benefits have been cut and who fear they will continue to get less and less, has stayed quiet enough recently not to cancel any major artistic festivals and other events, since the devastating shutdown of the Avignon and other festivals in 2003. Well, they're back! The shutdown is sure to bring them exactly the press coverage they wanted.

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Kaija Saariaho, L'aile du songe and other works, Camilla Hoitenga, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (released on November 12, 2002)
To get you past the heartbreak, we bring you a couple short notes on other works by Kaija Saariaho, beginning with a CD of some of her works for flute I've been listening to recently. This disc is named for the best piece on it, the stellar concerto for flute, L'aile du songe (2001), dedicated to and premiered by American flutist Camilla Hoitenga, who was born in my beloved home state of Michigan and now lives in Cologne. In two sections -- "Aérienne" (in the air) and "Terrestre" (on the ground) -- the flute, an instrument that is a vital part of Saariaho's musical style, flutters, bends, whispers, hisses through five movements of rather different character. The title comes from a collection of poems, Oiseaux (Birds), by Saint-John Perse. Saariaho is a sorceress of ethereal orchestral textures, with debts owed to Messiaen (hallucinatory dissonance), Bartók (glissandi, celesta, percussion), and others. However, in the best movement, Oiseau dansant, she refers to an Aboriginal myth about a bird that teaches the residents of a village how to dance. Here, the spirit of mystical, tinkly, otherworldly meditation is gone, replaced by frenetic rhythmic drive and berserk syncopations, with flute sounds morphing into language and back again.

The other pieces on this disc are of far less interest. The work for solo flute, Laconisme de l'aile (1981-82), dates from just after her studies at the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, and it sounds, in many ways, as if it should be classed with the composer's juvenilia. (Hoitenga's poor French pronunciation -- not horrible, but not good -- does not help this performance.) Throw this piece on the pile, maybe toward the bottom, with every other experimental work for solo flute (Robert Dick, Tōru Takemitsu, and so on). The same is true for the "sonic environments" Saariaho created to clothe the poetry of Saint-John Perse, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960. There are six poems, different versions for the original French and the English translations by Robert Fitzgerald. I like Perse's poems, although I am not a huge fan, and I appreciate the influence of his Oiseaux collection on Saariaho (his words are used in both Laconisme de l'aile and L'aile du songe). However, these pieces, which are simply recitations of the poems with electronica, do nothing for me. I would rather just read the poems silently to myself.

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available at Amazon
Kaija Saariaho, L'Amour de Loin, libretto by Amin Maalouf, Gerald Finley, Dawn Upshaw, Finnish National Opera, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Peter Sellars (released on September 13, 2005)
As for Saariaho's first opera, there is no doubt that it is a great achievement. The libretto is based on the life of 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel. (Earlier this month, the Folger Consort paired Jaufré's passionate love music with the mystical music of Hildegard von Bingen. I was not able to hear that concert.) As the opera recounts, he supposedly fell passionately in love with Clémence, the Countess of Tripoli, without ever having met her. This was a problem, since his castle was in Blaye, near Bordeaux. In this production in Helsinki, the castles of Jaufré (a robustly voiced Gerald Finley) and Clémence (the always divine Dawn Upshaw) are represented by spiral staircase structures on opposite sides of the stage. They are both visited by the mysterious figure of Le Pèlerin (The Pilgrim, mezzo-soprano Monica Groop, perfect in a part that is ambiguously male-female). They are also both often attended by a chorus, male or female, whom we mostly do not see but hear from the wings.

It's hard to believe that an opera could work with so little action -- two people far away from each other, he filled with longing for her, she thinking he must be crazy -- and the obvious ancestor of L'Amour de Loin is Pelléas et Mélisande. Jaufré's hope is consummated, and he does meet his ideal woman, but nothing happens as he expects. Saariaho's music is ever-changing, gorgeously orchestrated, and beautifully sung. Watching this DVD makes me appreciate, all over again, what a tragedy the cancellation of Adriana Mater is. We can only hope that the work will see the light of day soon.

UPDATE:
See also the interview with the composer by Christian Merlin (Kaija Saariaho entre la guerre et la maternité, March 30) for Le Figaro, which has a picture from the dress rehearsal. In response to the question "Is this opera's music different from that of L'Amour de loin," Saariaho said the following (my translation):
It's difficult for me to measure. After all, it's my music: there has to be continuity for that reason. Still, I feel as if it is very different: more dramatic, less meditative, more somber, and without that extension of my language toward ancient modality. But some people have told me that it was very similar even so. That is all I can tell you.
According to Saariaho, the opera brings together the themes of motherhood and war, meant to be reflective of the tragedies of war in the last several years. You can also watch this video interview on Adriana Mater with director Peter Sellars, although he is doing his best to speak in French (and doing pretty well, by the way). As far as I can tell, they are still planning to give the second performance of the opera, scheduled for April 3. We shall see.

7 comments:

marja-leena said...

Thanks for this piece! I did not know much about Saariaho, so have been reading up about her. Amazing woman! Did you know that her early work was electronic?

Charles T. Downey said...

Marja-Leena, I am glad that you read this. She has had quite a career, electronic and otherwise. Now, on behalf of Finns everywhere, can you give me the definitive version of how you pronounce her name?

marja-leena said...

Charles, I can try though I'm not good with the phonetic explanations. Kaija rhymes with Maya. Saah-ree (roll the r)- ah-o. Emphasis is always on the first syllable in Finnish, and in compound words like this its the first and third.
Hope that helps!

Henry Holland said...

Thanks for this, I was wondering why my usual sources of reviews didn't have anything about the premiere.

I love L'amour de Loin. I have two performances on tape, both conducted by Nagano: one from Salzburg with Dwayne Croft and one from Paris with Gerald Finley. Both are superb; I have to be in the right mood to listen to this opera (relaxed, pretty much) but I've listened to those performances dozens of times and I simply love it; just wave after wave of gorgeous, incadescent sounds, allied to a really beautiful libretto. I wish I'd had the money to have gone to Santa Fe! :-(

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks, Marja-Leena! I feel informed now. Thanks, too, to Henry, for the nice comment. I hope to have some more detailed thoughts on "L'amour de loin" at some point. I agree with your admiration for the opera.

Mwanji Ezana said...

A minor correction: intermittents du spectacle are not "people who work part-time in the performing arts," but performers or technicians who do not have permanent contracts with an employer. For example, a jazz musician might not have an employer, but only a series of one-night contracts with various venues. The intermittent status reflects the particular nature of artistic work (long periods of unpaid activity, such as rehearsal, followed by a stretch of paid activity), rather than whether one does it full- or part-time.

Charles T. Downey said...

Point taken. For me, "part-time" is still an adequate description, but without the nuance that you give it in your longer explanation. The other connotation of "part-time" in English, that it is not "real work" or part of a "real career," should not apply here.