Last week, I wrote about the cancellation of the much-anticipated premiere of Kaija Saariaho's second opera, Adriana Mater, at the Opéra national de Paris. The second performance, on April 3, effectively became the premiere. Continuing demonstrations against the CPE were a concern: would the opera ever get a public hearing? Alex Ross, the perceptive and talented music critic for The New Yorker, was in Paris for the premiere and was able to wait in the hope of the second performance actually happening. He reported in a brief update yesterday that the opera was indeed performed on Monday night and that Saariaho "triumphed." Reviews have started appearing today, so it must be time for a good ol' roundup at the Ionarts corral. First, Alan Riding stuck it out (The Opera 'Adriana Mater' Addresses Motherhood in a War Zone, April 4) for the New York Times:
Ms. Saariaho said she frequently discussed the story with Mr. Maalouf, but only began composing when the libretto was completed. This she did on a computer, working mainly from her imagination. As a result, she said, when she heard the score played by an orchestra for the first time, it was "very shocking."There was a little report (Adriana Mater opera's world première is big success in Paris, April 5) in the English-language edition of Helsingin Sanomat:
"That moment, when I start hearing it, I stop imagining it," she said. "I begin to forget what was in my mind. I go back and look at the score and remember what I heard the orchestra play and what I first imagined. And I ask myself, 'Is this what it is supposed to be?' I have to be very critical. Did I write it as I imagined it, if this is how it is played?"
The world première of Kaija Saariaho's second opera Adriana Mater at L'Opéra Bastille in Paris on Monday was a big success. The applause following the performance was excited albeit quite short, with people shouting "Bravo". Once the composer, dressed in red, stepped onto the stage, she received a thunderous ovation. Adriana Mater has recently received some publicity even through French television. Composer Kaija Saariaho, librettist Amin Maalouf, director Peter Sellars, and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen were all interviewed in the cultural news broadcasts of French TV.Yes, dear readers, in France the major television networks actually give a shit about opera and the arts in general. The Financial Times ran a review (Adriana Mater, Paris Opera, Bastille, April 4) by Francis Carlin:
Saariaho again steers clear of the template of modern opera: the narrative is stark and linear. But you have to be a fervent supporter of the Saariaho style to overlook the flaws. Saariaho’s decision to write for the stage was in part prompted by Messiaen’s St François d’Assise, an opera that is really a gargantuan oratorio. L’Amour de loin shared the same unconcern with dramatic pulse but worked for those who were entranced by its luxuriant orchestration. Adriana tries to tackle a more physical world and fails. Saariaho cannot juggle with theatrical pace and timing. A disembodied chorus barks out snippets of text and the amplification bombards us with crude distortion. Adriana treats Maalouf’s wordy, banal libretto with scant regard for French meter. Vital sentences are drowned out. Worse, the first three scenes are dominated by a background blur from the orchestra.The star rating given by this review was only 2 of a possible 5. The leading French critic was equally negative: Marie-Aude Roux (Décevante "Adriana Mater" [Disappointing "Adriana Mater"], April 6) writing in Le Monde (my translation):
With Adriana Mater, poverty came into the Opéra de Paris. First of all, the libretto. The bland prettiness of Amin Maalouf's pseudo-poetic style was appropriate more or less for L'Amour de loin, a story of courtly love offered by the troubadour Jaufré Rudel dying at the feet of the Countess of Tripoli after a long voyage. It's a different matter for Adriana, this young woman raped during the war by one of her own people, who decides to raise her child and "close up the gates of Hell" by breaking the chain of violence, through not seeking vengeance. The balance of evil conquered by good, male vanquished by motherhood, death vanquished by life, yes. But there is a point at which an excess of good feeling makes one nauseated and creates instead a backlash against what you meant to denounce or affirm.Mme. Roux starkly criticized every aspect of the production: sets, libretto, music, direction, and the poor French pronunciation of the singers. Philippe Herlin was diametrically opposed in his review (La guerre et le pardon, April 4) for ConcertoNet.com. He called the libretto (my translation) "an incontestable success," the staging by Peter Sellars "a very detailed work, where each movement is thought out but seems perfectly natural," and George Tsypin's set "luminous." Herlin's only negative comment was reserved for those who caused the cancellation of the premiere by striking: "The only wrong note ultimately was the incomprehensible last-minute cancellation of the March 30 premiere, throwing out on the street the audience and dozens of journalists, some of whom had come from far away. For a so-called «strike in support of the movement of the intermittents du spectacle» -- a handful of idiots stripped of any professional conscience, there is no other way to describe them -- the event was ruined."
Add this brief review by Christian Merlin (Pour la musique, April 6) in Le Figaro (my translation):
If we did not come out of this opera with the same feeling of fullness as after L'Amour de loin, it is certainly not the music's fault, because the Finnish woman's music is of hypnotising beauty. [...] Our reservations do not therefore concern the eloquence of the instrumentation, more violent and contrasting that in L'Amour de loin, while the vocal writing and text setting conform to the same standard. Rather, we observe a divorce between music and text. First, because Amin Maalouf's sententious libretto suffers from a disconnect between the realism of the subject and the pompous clichés with which the characters express themselves. Also, the voices are swallowed whole by the orchestra: added to the fact that the singers, non-French speakers, have an unintelligible diction and deplorable pronunciation. We had the feeling that we were listening to a symphonic poem with voices, which is frustrating for what is supposed to be a form of theater. The advantage of this failure is that one can choose not to read the supertitles and allow oneself to be moved by the music alone. In this way the universal humanity of the story can touch us most deeply.Christian Merlin also calls the strike that canceled the premiere "irresponsible." He praises Peter Sellars' direction, especially in the part of the work dealing with compassion and forgiveness. Georges Tsypin's sets and James Ingalls' lighting reinforce the message. Highest praise of all for Merlin goes to conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
See also Eric Dahan's review («Adriana Mater», tragédie sans épaisseur [Adriana Mater, tragedy without depth], April 6) in Libération. His worst criticism was also of the libretto, more appropriate to than R&B song and overusing "like" in a way "worthy of a high-school student's level of writing." However, he also describes Saariaho's music as "of a level of sophistication inversely proportional to her sometimes crude choral and orchestral writing." The rape scene, he says, was "risibly prosaic," evidence that Saariaho's musical style is too "fragile" for the large form of opera, especially one with such a violent story, "as embarrassingly naive as the idea of someone like Stallone trying to dance Giselle."
One of the longer reviews I have read is by Nicolas Blanmont (Adriana Mater, opéra français, April 7) for La Libre Belgique. He wrote that the expectations for Saariaho's opera were so high after the triumph of L'Amour de loin that disappointment was perhaps inevitable. He criticizes many of the same elements: the diction of the non-French singers, the orchestral sound covering the singers, the monotony of style.