by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, April 24, 2006.
Kaija Saariaho, whose new opera, “Adriana Mater,” had its première in Paris earlier this month, once said that she likes to explore the boundary between music and noise. Many of her large-scale works, “Adriana” included, begin with a great, heaving expanse of intermingled timbres, like a landscape turned molten, or an ocean boiling. Instruments cry out at high or low extremes; pitches are bent or broken apart; violins are bowed with such intensity that they groan; flutes are blown until they emit an asthmatic rasp. It’s the kind of sound that boxes the ears and maxes out the brain; information pours in on all frequencies. But Saariaho is something other than a sonic terrorist out to shock whatever remains of the bourgeoisie. She makes her eruptions of noise seem like natural phenomena, the aftermath of some seismic break. Shapes emerge from the chaos, and the shapes begin to sing. The latter sections of her pieces often bring apparitions of rare, pure beauty—plain intervals that sound like harmony reborn, liminal melodies that disappear the moment they are heard. They are like the wildflowers that bloom in Death Valley, their colors intensified by the nothingness around them.
Saariaho, who is fifty-three, has had a fascinating career trajectory, moving from the hothouses of the European avant-garde into something like the cultural mainstream. She was part of a ridiculously gifted class of Finnish music students that included the composer Magnus Lindberg and the composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (who led the “Adriana” première). She has been living in Paris since 1982, and from the start her music has been marked by ideas that have been circulating in French music for several decades: the derivation of melody and harmony from overtones, and the blending of instrumental and electronic timbres. She has long been associated with IRCAM, the electronic-music institute that was founded by Pierre Boulez, in 1977. (New Yorkers will have a chance to hear IRCAM’s gadgetry in a mini-festival at Columbia University on May 6th and 7th.)
Saariaho’s chief French models were Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey, who, in the nineteen-seventies, developed a compositional process that came to be called “spectralism.” By way of computers, they analyzed the overtones that accompany any resonating tone—say, a low E on a trombone. They then tried to capture that spectrum of tone color in novel forms that unfolded in shimmering waves. The resulting music sounds exotic on first encounter, but its foundation in acoustical reality gives it a certain “rightness,” in contrast to previous compositional systems, such as twelve-tone technique, which imposed alternate realities on unwilling audiences. After all, the lower end of the overtone series supplies the building blocks of Western music—the octave, the fourth, the fifth, the major third. Seminal spectralist works, such as Murail’s orchestral piece “Gondwana” and Grisey’s evening-length instrumental cycle “Les Espaces Acoustiques,” have epiphanic moments in which grand harmonies coalesce from the ether—the same effects of emergence that are central to Saariaho’s aesthetic.
Composers who have taken inspiration from spectralist methods—among them Saariaho, Julian Anderson, Georg Friedrich Haas, and the late Claude Vivier—aren’t tune-happy populists by any means. But they have brought a new sensuousness to European music. In place of the spastic gesturing that was de rigueur during the Cold War era, their work often unfolds in meditative, deep-breathing lines. While spectralist music would hardly serve as the soundtrack to a yoga session, it does have the capacity to generate a state of eerie calm. In a way, it is the European counterpart to American minimalism, which, back in the nineteen-sixties, returned emphatically to musical ABCs. It was interesting that while Salonen was rehearsing “Adriana Mater” in Paris, his home orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was mounting a festival of minimalist music. Perhaps a new lingua franca is emerging, one that reunites a fractured compositional scene. The title of Murail’s “Gondwana,” after all, suggests a vision of music as a single giant continent.
Saariaho never imagined herself an opera composer. But, after seeing Messiaen’s monumental sacred opera “St. Francis of Assisi” at the Salzburg Festival in 1992, she realized that she could engage the genre as slow-moving ritual rather than as event-packed drama. Eight years later, her first opera, “L’Amour de Loin,” or “The Distant Love,” was unveiled at Salzburg. It is based on a libretto by the Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf, who, like the composer, is a longtime Paris resident. The story has the simple power of an ancient tale, which it is: Jaufré, a twelfth-century troubadour, falls in love with the idea of a far-off Tripoli countess and, after a long, dread-filled journey, dies in her arms. Saariaho’s music captures with magical immediacy the drastic emotions that swirl around this romance, which is different from standard operatic melodrama in that the action is largely psychological. There is a riveting DVD of a Finnish National Opera performance, with a beautifully restrained Peter Sellars production, roof-rattling orchestral sounds under Salonen’s direction, and great lead performances by Dawn Upshaw, Monica Groop, and Gerald Finley. Saariaho’s stroke of genius is to keep the melodic lines spare and direct amid the orchestral phantasmagoria; Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” is her vocal model. After watching the DVD, you may find yourself writing a letter to your local opera house, pleading for a production. This one is addressed to Peter Gelb, Metropolitan Opera.
“Adriana Mater,” which also has a Maalouf libretto and a production by Sellars, is at once a more political and a more personal piece. It is rooted in the composer’s memories of her first pregnancy, during which she thought often about the person whose heart was beating next to her own and studied the sonogram for clues. She described that feeling to Maalouf, who added to it his own long-standing obsessions with the agonies of modern identity, with the intertwining of religious fanaticism and political violence. He wove a modern fable about a woman named Adriana, who, amid the chaos of a modern regional war (in the Balkans, perhaps), is raped and impregnated by a fellow-villager. Seventeen years later, the child becomes an angry young man, and when he meets his father he has to decide whether he will exact vengeance. When, finally, he shies away from violence, Adriana says to him, “We have not been avenged, but we have been saved.”
The story of Adriana has obvious contemporary resonances, suggesting how a nation at war can harm itself as much as it damages its enemies. The music begins with a typical Saariaho assault: an eight-note chord, marked disperato, blaring brightly and cruelly in the brass. Yet there’s something different about Saariaho’s use of the “noise” mode in this opera. It lacks the enveloping mystery that distinguishes “L’Amour de Loin.” Instead, the dissonance feels more like the standard barrage that professionally anguished composers have been unleashing since the nineteen-fifties. It makes for a sullen first act, short on contrast. On the other hand, there may be a specific reason that Saariaho has chosen to employ this harsh and limited palette in setting out her scene. For centuries, male composers have been subjecting female characters to humiliation and death onstage. It is different, somehow, when a woman composer enacts the same ritual; there is no element of fantasy about the violence, as there is even in such a complexly compassionate work as Berg’s “Lulu.”
In the second act, a deeper agenda comes to the fore, which has little to do with war, the Balkans, the Middle East, or other present-day contexts. It has to do with the core idea of the opera: Saariaho’s experience of the pain and beauty of birth. Ultimately, the outer events of the story seem like an elaborate metaphor for a more everyday but no less extraordinary story of becoming a mother in a hostile world. When, at the end, Adriana rests her head on her son’s shoulder, and simple intervals sound in the orchestra (notably the elemental open fifth, as in Grisey’s masterpiece “Transitoires”), the feeling of resolution is immense. It is a stupendous ending, all the more so for taking the audience out of darkness into light.
The première production, at the Bastille Opera, was involving, but not at the level of “L’Amour de Loin.” George Tsypin’s sets underused the vast spread of the Bastille’s stage; an array of walls, huts, and domes made for a frustratingly limited stage picture. James Ingalls’s lighting effects were uncharacteristically predictable (blood-red for violence, etc.). Sellars got urgent performances from the singers, but his usual leaps of dramatic imagination were absent. Patricia Bardon sang the role of Adriana with a sometimes edgy voice but with emotional vitality; Stephen Milling gave a gruff, black-voiced presence to the rapist, Tsargo; Solveig Kringelborn was luminous as Adriana’s sister, Refka; Gordon Gietz sang passionately and accurately as young Yonas. Unfortunately, the sound design, by IRCAM technicians, periodically swallowed up the voices; the Bastille is not made for electronic effects. Despite Salonen’s dynamic conducting, the greatness of the opera was more sensed than heard. Still, the audience rewarded Saariaho with a tumultuous ovation.
The première of “Adriana Mater” was delayed for several days by one of the various strikes that have recently immobilized France. While waiting, I went to the Théâtre du Châtelet to see Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” in a Robert Wilson production, with Christoph Eschenbach conducting; Wilson’s staging of the complete “Ring” has been running at the Châtelet this season. As in Wilson’s all-blue version of “Lohengrin,” which returns to the Met this week, the working to death of a tiny handful of motifs, poses, and color schemes (hint: it wasn’t magenta) makes for a long night. Endrik Wottrich, Petra-Maria Schnitzer, Linda Watson, and Jukka Rasilainen were in varying degrees inadequate to the roles of Siegmund, Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, and Wotan. It’s never good news when Fricka, Wotan’s querulous wife, becomes the heroine, but Mihoko Fujimura’s performance dominated the stage, not only because her voice is lustrous in tone and precise in diction but because her stylized attitudes of rage and rectitude gave life to the pseudo-Kabuki mannerisms of Wilson’s production. It somehow seemed appropriate that in the vicinity of “Adriana Mater,” a new feminist masterpiece, the clearest theme in “Die Walküre” was that a woman had had enough of her husband’s lies.