La Passion de Simone

Well the Summer holidays are truly over and we’re all back at our desks and here at Operakey I’m delighted to be back doing what I love doing most… talking Opera! I will be looking at some of the operas I have been listening to over the summer which will include works by Harrison Birtwistle, Philip Glass, Albert Lortzing & Vincenzo Bellini. I will also be reviewing the upcoming and eagerly awaited production of Don Giovanni by Opera Theatre Company with a new translation by Roddy Doyle but first to a composer who I have been listening to quite a lot recently and one who we have looked at previously here on Operakey, the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (see L’Amour de loin). This time we will be looking at ‘La Passion de Simone’ which is technically an oratorio but lets not concern ourselves with that.


Kaija Saariaho

Saariaho attended the Freiburg conservatory of music in Germany and studied under a regime of strict serialism (imagine – percussive, atonal, dissonance) where she says

‘you were not allowed to have pulse or tonally orientated harmonies or melodies’

and later she came under the influence of the Spectral composers. Spectralism, which developed in France in the 1970’s, involved experimenting with the use of computers in composition and though some of the works in this style can be rather angular and anaemic Saariaho marries these electronic elements which are often quite subtle with tonal orchestration to create a truly beautiful and ethereal style.


Simone Weil, 1909 -1943.

The inspiration for ‘La Passion de Simone’ was the life and death of the French philosopher, political activist and Christian mystic Simone Weil who starved herself to death in an English sanatorium in 1943, aged 34, in empathy with the hardships and suffering of her fellow countrymen under Nazi occupation. Weil was an incredibly complex and fascinating individual and some knowledge of her life is certainly helpful in appreciating this work.

The libretto is by the French Lebanese author Amin Maalouf who Saariaho regularly collaborates with and takes the form of fifteen sections or ‘Stations’ as they are called to evoke the comparison with the Stations of the Cross (Saariaho very much sees Weil’s life as a spiritual journey) and the piece in many ways takes the form of a traditional Passion Play as each station deals with a specific event or period in Weil’s tragic life. At the core of the piece is Weil’s continual struggle against injustice and inhumanity and the desire not only to sympathise with but also to actually experience the pain and suffering of others, be they struggling for economic survival (her insistence on working in factories) or for political or national freedom (she briefly fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War and for the French Resistance in World War II).


Soprano Pia Freund, accompanied by a silent dancer.

There is only one main character in this work, Weil’s imaginary sister who sings her thoughts and feelings about the various stages in Weil’s life while a narrator occasionally reads passages from her writings and a small chorus provides colour and resonance to the vocal style. Like other works by Saariaho La Passion de Simone has a very spiritual and ethereal feel, an almost floating unworldly quality that seduces the listener into its soundscape. The stage setting for the original production was by the rather controversial American director Peter Sellars and features the singer on a raised platform and very little else. As mentioned in previous posts I am a fan of minimalist stage design and the lack of visual clutter works particularly well with a piece like this which is so musically and vocally absorbing, the movements and expressions of the singer being the conduit for the emotional strength of the libretto.


Soprano Julia Bullock at the Ojai Music Festival

The orchestration echoes and reinforces the themes of each of the stations whether it be the percussive and almost threatening style of the 5th and 6th station where Weil, despite her education and comfortable life chooses to work in factories in order to live the experiences of poor people or the almost angelic and otherworldly style of the 13th (‘Slowly you give up the ghost my little sister Simone’). and 14th (‘Every evil is aroused in the world’) station as Weil fades away and eventually dies of malnutrition.

La Passion de Simone is an impressively beautiful and haunting work and like much of Saariaho’s output it bucks the trend to more dissonant stylings in much contemporary vocal composition. Yes, traumatic or disturbing passages in the libretto are accompanied by surging and angular orchestration but this is to serve the text and the overall power of the work is in its beauty and its ability to take the listener into the world it creates and hold them there. I strongly advise readers to listen to more of Saariaho’s choral and orchestral works as she is certainly one of the most impressive contemporary composers and one gets the impression that despite the very modern feel of much of her work and the subtle use of electronica she is a composer who has a great love of the classical and impressionist traditions.


The recording I have is on the Ondine label and features American Soprano Dawn Upshaw for whom the soprano piece was originally written. It is quite a demanding vocal piece and Upshaw’s performance is moving and absorbing (she missed the world premiere in Vienna while under treatment for breast cancer but performed the UK, French and US premieres).

Dance of the Little Swans

One of the highlights of Swan Lake, if indeed highlights can be plucked from such a Masterpiece, has to be the Dance of the Little Swans from Act II.


Prince Siegfried has arrived at an enchanted lake deep in the forest where he sees Odette and the other swans in the moonlight but cannot bring himself to raise his bow to slay any of them. As he watches he sees some young swans swim out onto the lake, surrounded and protected by the older ones.

The young swans want to appear as beautiful and elegant as the older ones who swim so protectively around them but they still need to huddle together for support and comfort as they perform their half elegant half awkward dance before trying to take flight from the lake. But alas they can’t spread their wings as they are too young and like all the other swans they are under the spell of the sorcerer Von Rothbart which keeps them confined to their earthly avian beauty.

The dance of the Little Swans was added to the 1895 revision of Swan Lake which is the version mostly performed today and is for obvious reasons a ballet school favourite. It is also the source of some rather humorous….interpretations!

The Royal Moscow Ballet tour Swan Lake in Ireland in March with five dates.



Time for a little Ballet

Vey excited at getting my tickets to the Royal Moscow Ballet who visit Ireland for five performances of Swan Lake in March. There are a number of versions of Swan Lake and there is a happy ending version and a sad ending one to confuse things even further. The sad ending where Odette and Siegfried break Von Rothbart’s spell by proving their true love in death was considered to have mystical and religious overtones by the soviet regime so a happy ending was created with the true love and the spell breaking but not the death. The version most performed today is the 1895 version but with the happy ending.


Swan Lake is probably one of the most beautiful spectacles you will ever see and although I have seen a number of recorded versions I have never been to a live production. Of the versions recorded on DVD I recommend one by The Royal Swedish Ballet recorded at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2002 and released by the BBC & Opus Arte. This is a full, traditional, classical version….sublime.


Swan Lake has what is considered to be the most difficult role for a ballerina in the repertoire not least because the lead ballerina must play two roles, that of Odette and Odile who are meant to be diametrically opposed characters, the famous White Swan/Black Swan, and as such requite different dancing techniques and dramatisations. Swan lake also has the famous 32 fouettés performed by Odile in Act 3 where the audience and I dare say the whole cast wish the ballerina on to the end successfully.

Don’t mess with Diana Damrau

While accepting that opera is essentially a live art form, a lot of performances nowadays are being recorded to extend the experience beyond the immediate audience and allow those who cannot attend for financial or geographical reasons to have a sense of the live experience.


Cecelia Bartoli & Gino Quilico in Rossini’s comic classic.

I have a small collection of DVD’s which started a number of years back with a performance of ‘The Barber of Seville’ featuring Cecelia Bartoli as Rosina and Gino Quilico in the title role.

The Barber is such wonderful introduction to Opera, awash with great tunes and bursting with comic scenes. Still to this day probably my favourite opera and of course Cecilia Bertoli in this production is a mesmerising Mezzo who can do justice to Rossini’s requirement for vocal gymnastics.


Don’t mess with Diana Damrau

But pride of place in my DVD collection has to go to the recording of David McVicars production of Mozarts  ‘Die Zauberflöte’ from The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2003. Simon Keenlyside is wonderful as Papageno but this production is remembered for German soprano Diana Damrau’s performance as The Queen of the Night. An absolute jaw dropper that had me glued to the screen and a regular visitor to youtube ever since for regular top ups. I can’t recommend the recording of this production highly enough, it is stunning.

What’s the point of Opera anyway

In a recent article in The Guardian, artistic directors of seven UK opera houses were asked why Opera matters and while most of the answers mentioned the cultural significance, the artistic importance, the creativity, the wonderful singing and musical talent not to mention the sheer enjoyment of the live performance, I found the response from Oliver Mears, artistic director of Opera Northern Ireland, most interesting.

His reply opens with ‘Opera is important because it is totally unfeasible’ and he proceeds to articulate the impracticality of opera. The demands it makes on music, singing, staging, acting etc… the financial cost and the complexity of this most illogical of art forms.

But by doing this he points out the very reasons why Opera should be supported and encouraged and why its presence should be vital to any community with an artistic sensibility. Opera is a tangible expression of the human spirit. In its very ‘lack of deference to economic realities’ to quote Mears, lies its human, emotional and artistic importance. In its very illogicality lies its achievement.

Giselle Allen as Senta and Bruno Caproni as The Dutchman

Giselle Allen as Senta and Bruno Caproni as The Dutchman

My first live introduction to Wagner was Oliver Mears production with Opera Northern Ireland of ‘The Flying Dutchman’ in the Grand Opera House, Belfast in 2013 to mark the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth. Wagner can be a difficult and inaccessible at the best of times but Mears production was a joy to watch and a wonderful introduction to Wagner.