By Johanna Keller
AMSTERDAM — Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s iridescent new opera, Only the Sound Remains, is a profound and moving exploration of mortality and consciousness. At just under two hours in length, the world premiere on March 15 at the Dutch National Opera featured the dazzling French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who was paired with an exciting newcomer, bass-baritone Davone Tines.
The score is a swirl of choral and instrumental colors layered over a subtle electronic foundation with antiphonal effects. Structured like a series of interlocking boxes and punctuated by delicate word-painting, this opera marks a breakthrough in Saariaho’s ability to bring a story to life, with vividly imagined details that focus on sensory experience and hint at the inner emotions of the characters.
Commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of the Dutch National Opera, Only the Sound Remains kicked off the company’s new Opera Forward Festival, which will be an annual event promoting new work and new artists. A co-production with the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki, Opéra national de Paris, Teatro Real in Madrid, and the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, the opera will receive its U.S. premiere at the Ojai Music Festival June 10-11.
Central to its development — and to Saariaho’s growth as a dramatic composer — has been her close collaboration with its director, Peter Sellars. Saariaho worked with Sellars for the 2000 Salzburg Festival premiere of her first opera, L’Amour de loin, which will be heard at the Metropolitan Opera next season (though not with Sellars directing). The pair has been collaborating ever since, and his fingerprints are on many aspects of her latest work.
For Only the Sound Remains, it was Sellars who suggested the libretto comprising two Noh plays, Tsunemasa (Always Strong) and Hagoromo (Feather Mantle), sung in the English translations by Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa. Sellars also brought in the New York-based Ethiopian painter Julie Mehretu to create her first stage set, a tangled calligraphic abstract printed on a translucent scrim. When backlit or with shadows projected on it, the backdrop gave the magical effect of melting into another world, a theme in both plays.
Dating from 14th century Japan, the Noh tradition is a highly stylized theatrical form that usually combines several brief tales in one evening. This production had no fans or masks. Instead, the stories were stripped down to their essence so that the minimalistic costumes by Robby Duiveman, the calligraphic scrim, the bamboo chimes, and the occasional bent notes from the flute (evoking the sound of a shakuhachi) made only oblique reference to Noh’s cultural heritage.
In the first act, “Always Strong,” a young lute player named Tsunemasa returns to Earth as a restless ghost after his violent death. Performing the role, Jaroussky sang with his usual pinpoint accuracy and elegant musicality; in the decade since he burst on the scene with sensational recordings of castrati repertoire, his silvery countertenor has matured, and when he sang “I am the ghost of Tsunemasa” his voice gleamed pewter and was no less beautiful. His co-star, Tines, is a relative newbie, just beginning to garner major roles. As the temple monk who offers the lute in order to put the ghost to rest, he had a true actor’s flair for internal struggle, as well as an attractively warm basso with a baritone’s agility.
The second act, “Feather Mantle,” tells of a fisherman (Tines again sang the terrestrial role) who finds a robe of feathers. A tennin, or angel, appears (Jaroussky with his celestial voice in this hellishly demanding role), and the fisherman agrees to return the robe only if she dances for him. The graceful, birdlike dancer Nora Kimball-Mentzos accomplishes this feat and gradually dissolves into the mist of Mount Fuji, as lighting director James F. Ingalls splashes the monochromatic set with the orange and lemony green of springtime.
In the pit, under the expert baton of André de Ridder, were eleven musicians: the Dudok Quartet, the versatile virtuoso flutist Camilla Hoitenga, a quartet of excellent singers from the Netherlands Chamber Choir, percussionist Niek KleinJan, and Eija Kankaanranta playing the kantele in several sizes. This dulcimer-like instrument is to the Finns what the lyre is to the Greeks, central in their most ancient national mythology. Popularized in recent years by heavy metal bands, the versatile kantele can be plucked, hammered, or strummed. Surprisingly, this is the first time Saariaho has written for the kantele, and it proved a fitting addition to her ethereal sonic palette.
In his mature work, Sellars has been engaged by the concept of theater and music as ritual. He enacted this in two ways: by having the instrumentalists and chorus costumed in gray tunics and jackets so that they became, in a sense, presiding priests, and by having the chorus and the soloists use repeated hand gestures (an inverted V for Mountain, other signals for prayer and for rain). These sometimes too-obvious gestures, a hallmark of Sellars‘ directorial practice, have become a tic, along with his occasionally fussy blocking. But these are quibbles. The outstanding achievement here is that, in addition to inspiring compelling performances from the cast, Sellars has helped conceive a multi-dimensional, collaborative work that brought out new dimensions from the text and score.
Saariaho’s music is elusive and allusive, a veil of carefully calibrated orchestral hues and tonalities. Early in her career, she turned away from the strict serialism of Darmstadt and her studies with Brian Ferneyhough, and toward the spectral techniques developed at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), the underground musical lab in Paris. Spectralism, arguably the most important development in music in the past few decades, is less a school than a compositional approach that focuses on timbre, incorporates electronic sounds, and utilizes the harmonic overtone series to create a sound that is ear-friendly.
While both acts of the opera have the same orchestration, Saariaho creates vividly different sonic worlds for each. In the first act, the sound of the temple is evoked with taps on the wooden block, a reverberating gong, the xylophone. Rain arrives in the clatter of bamboo chimes, while the plucked kantele evokes the lute. There are the breathy exhalations into the bass flute and the hoarse whispers from the chorus. For “Feather Mantle,” the colors are airier — the ting of a triangle, the eerie waver of a bowed glockenspiel, silences, the trill of the piccolo, the clouds of strummed kantele, the hiss of the cymbal.
For all their differences, however, both acts ended with a similar fading out of the acoustic instruments, leaving only the barely audible sound of the electronic score, performed in real time by Christophe Lebreton and David Poissonnier from a soundboard at the rear of the auditorium. The gradual diminuendo allowed the echo to linger in the ear, letting only the sound remain.
Johanna Keller teaches at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she founded the Goldring Arts Journalism Program. She received an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for her writing in The New York Times.