Saariaho’s ‘Sound’ Casts Subtle Spell In U.S. Premiere

Davóne Tines and Nora Kimball-Mentzos in Kaija Saariaho’s opera, ‘Only the Sound Remains.’
(Photo by Ruth Walz)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK — Kaija Saariaho’s latest opera, Only the Sound Remains, was the final event and the sole opera performed during the 2018 White Light Festival, Lincoln Center’s annual series devoted to music exploring spiritual questions. Based on two Noh plays, with an English libretto by Ezra Pound based on work by Ernest Fenollosa and directed by Peter Sellars, the chamber opera was a hypnotic, dream-like exploration of the ties between the mortal and spirit worlds, with splendid performances by the two singers and the rich chamber ensemble.

A man (Davóne Tines) encounters a strange being (Philippe Jaroussky). (Chris Lee)

The work, a repeat collaboration between Saariaho and Sellars, incorporates elements that interested both creators. The Finnish composer had wanted to use the poetry of Pound, whose work she had encountered in an earlier project. Sellars suggested Pound’s translations of Japanese Noh theater, a genre he knows well.

Only the Sound Remains is a line from the first of two contrasting stories, each about a man (sung by the American bass-baritone Davóne Tines) trying to make contact with a being from another dimension (French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky). In the dark, unsettling first tale, “Tsunemasa” (Always Strong), a priest conducting a ritual in honor of a warrior who died in battle is haunted by his ghost. In the lighter second part, “Hagoromo” (Feather Mantle), a fisherman comes across the cloak of the moon spirit and refuses to give it back until she dances for him. For both parts, the stage was bare except for a low platform, six feet wide, and a brushstroke-painted fabric screen (set by Julie Mehretu) which serves as a backdrop or, depending on lighting (designed by James F. Ingalls), the barrier between mortals and spirits.

Tsunemasa is an unquiet soul reaching out to his former life by making contact with a mortal, the priest who inadvertently invokes the spirit of the dead warrior when he conducts a service in his memory. From the ominous opening gong and cascades of strings, the music creates a sense of unease. Both spirit and mortal long to connect: the warrior, once a favorite of the king, is drawn back to his former life; the priest, both fearful and eager to see him, is never sure if anyone is there. The energy between ghost and priest borders on the erotic, but their encounter remains unresolved as the ghost disappears. The spare libretto uses musical imagery to frame Tsunemasa’s memories: a blue lute given to him by the king is the trigger for his return, and his memories correspond to its strings. The vocal quartet comments little, but vocalizes wordlessly; priest and viewer are left with the feeling of something unfinished, out of reach.

In contrast, the second story has a lighter, almost teasing quality; with its more densely written libretto and fuller orchestration, it is somehow more earthbound. The chorus gives voice to the fisherman Hakuryo, homeward bound after his day on the water, who finds a feathered cloak hanging in a tree and decides to keep it as a treasure to show to the elders. A Tennin (moon spirit) tells him that it belongs to another spirit who cannot return home without it. The stubborn Hakuryo repeatedly refuses to relinquish his find, but finally gives in when the Tennin tells him, “Doubt is for mortals; with us there is no deceit.” The fisherman can hear and answer the Tennin, but only the audience can see the graceful, agitated dancer who flutters about the fisherman, gesturing, hopping, and tugging at the cloak. As in the first story, the man remains in front of the screen, while countertenor and dancer, the vocal and physical embodiments of the spirit, move freely about the stage. Toward the tale’s end, the screen slowly rises and lowers, suggesting a dissolving of the boundaries between earthly and spiritual realms depicted onstage.

The accompanying ensemble of string quartet, flutes of all sizes, kantele (traditional Finnish zither, another Saariaho interest), percussion, and four singers, all wearing sober gray costumes (by Robby Duiveman), sat in the shallow orchestra pit, visible to the audience. Whenever the pit musicians — vocal quartet and instrumentalists — reached toward the stage in imitation of the gestures made by the soloists, the breach between pit and platform emphasized the porous boundaries between humans and spirits depicted onstage.

Davóne Tines portrays a priest and a fisherman.

Elements of the production — the intimate scale, distinctive vocal and instrumental timbres, and deliberate pacing — suggested the ritualized ambiance of Japanese theater. Solo voices (only male, either high or low) were penetrating and declamatory. Saariaho’s vocal writing had more in common with Noh’s stylized recitations than with any Verdi aria. The unusual scoring for flutes, percussion, and kantele often sounded remarkably like the instruments used in gagaku (Japanese court music). The contrasting postures of the two men and their physical gestures also referenced traditional Japanese theater.

In contrast, Saariaho’s refined and subtle combination of sonorities, her addition of a string quartet and a chorus of four virtuoso singers, and especially her use of electronic effects, are part of her own recognizable musical language. All the voices and instruments were miked, which provided discreet amplification but also allowed for electronic processing of the live sounds. Whispers, overtone singing, and percussive mouth sounds in the chorus, and especially Jaroussky’s unearthly treble voice, provided apt fodder for ghostly echoes and distortion, heard through speakers installed around the Rose Theater. These effects were used sparingly to underscore moments like the first appearance of the ghost. After experiencing Saariaho’s first opera, L’Amour de loin, at the Met, a theater too large for Saariaho’s electronic textures to be heard properly, it was a revelation to encounter these effects in a more appropriate space (sound design by Christophe Lebreton).

The performers, most of whom had appeared in four earlier runs of the production, gave the audience the luxury of hearing a new work with all the kinks ironed out. Sweet-voiced Jaroussky successfully embodied both spirit characters. His once-boyish allure has ripened into a commanding stage presence, and he was both visually and aurally compelling as the otherworldly spirit. Tines gave his earthbound characters substance and emotional weight with a smooth, resonant voice, strong physicality, and crisp diction. The energy between the two men gave me chills. In the second story, the charismatic dancer Nora Kimball-Mentzos was wraith-like in diaphanous white, paradoxically conveying insubstantiality with her intensely physical performance.

Theatre of Voices with kantele artist Eija Kankaanranta (Chris Lee)

In the pit, the splendid British vocal quartet Theatre of Voices imparted a human warmth even when making unconventional sounds. In the second part their more text-driven, conventional choral declamation contributed to the rhythmic energy of the fisherman’s tale. Kantele player and new-music specialist Eija Kankaanranta was commanding in her important part. The Finnish string quartet Meta4, percussionist Heikki Parviainen, and flute player Camilla Hoitenga completed the crack instrumental ensemble. Conductor Ernest Martínez Izquierdo led a calm but dynamically paced evening.

After seeing this in Paris 10 months ago and subsequently visiting Japan, I found that a second encounter provided a clearer sense of the overall structure and aesthetic and a more vivid connection to the emotions. Experiencing it again also made me wish for a few cuts, even though there was an intermission, which was omitted in Paris. It’s an immersive experience: there is a commercially available video, but without the theatrical ambiance and especially the surround sound, the impact would be diminished. The audience, skewed to a New Music/Brooklyn crowd, was thrilled. I’d be happy to see it again.

This five-company co-production, premiered in 2016 in Amsterdam and subsequently seen in Helsinki, Paris, and Madrid, will have a run at the Canadian Opera Company in a future season.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!

A scene from Kaija Saariaho’s opera ‘Only the Sound Remains’ at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. (Chris Lee)