La Passion de Simone, presented by Cal Performance as part of the Ojai North Festival last past weekend, chronicles the life of Simone Weil. A French Jewish philosopher, Weil converted to Catholicism and, after fleeing France during WWII and emigrating to first New York then London, died there of either anorexia or from a mysticism-driven hunger strike to share the plight of people starving during the war.
Why attend this rather drab predicament, when at the same time, SF Opera was offering a star-studded night of light banter and joyous arias to celebrate the retirement of general director David Gockley with Renee Fleming or Thomas Hampson? Part of the reason is the attraction from its creator: Kaija Saariaho is one of the rare female composers to be on the program at the Met Opera. Actually, the Met's upcoming production of her L'amour de loin will be the first written by a woman since Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald in 1903, and the second one ever. (We couldn't find any performance by a female composer on the main stage of SF Opera, with one production by Thea Musgrave and one by Rachel Portman on smaller stages, so we can't really scold the Met.)
Kaija's music is a big deal, and Ojai North was advertised as women-oriented, despite being curated by Peter Sellars, who carries a Y chromosome. Not only was there La Passion de Simone, but there were two more evenings, one dedicated to Josephine Baker and a concert by Dina El Wedidi. Good for Sellars to feature these women, as we were not too impressed by his feminist cred after watching Dr Atomic, for which he wrote the libretto, and which had two female cliches on stage: A raging alcoholic stay-at-home wife and a selfless nurturing Native-American nanny.
He must have taken the criticism received over these characterizations to heart, since his next collaboration with Dr Atomic composer John Adams, just announced by SF Opera's David Gockley for 2017, is titled the Girls of the Golden West and focuses on the tough chicks of the gold rush.
Now, Ojai Festival, if you want to empower women, it's simpler to just make them artistic directors, you know. Out of the 70 editions of the festival, only once was a woman alone in that role (Dawn Upshaw in 2011; some shared the duties in three more occasions).
Kaija's La Passion de Simone is an oratorio for one soprano and a small chorus that runs seventy five minutes of rather bleak emotions, following Simone through the final stages of her life and presented as fifteen stations of her suffering. The Ojai version is scaled down from the original, which had electronics and larger forces. Breaking up the narrative arc into small pieces fits Kaija's musical writing, which likes bite-sized phrases and melody. The text (in French, by Amin Maalouf) is broken up into chunks of syllables that are set to short and simple melodic lines.
The orchestration supports the vocal lines with the same short, broken-up patterns. Kaija does not layer her music with the typical harmonic bass line in the lower register and melodies and counter-melodies on top. It's all orchestrated vertically, all instruments having similar role and weight, and the timbral texture oscillating along a rhythmic pulse. The impression is that of a spectral orchestral wave coming and crashing, then the next one, with a slightly different color, then the next one, according to an almost regular pulse. There are no long melodic phrases, but rather a halted ebb-and-flow that shimmers in a myriad of textures, an amazing feat considering the small size of the chamber orchestra. Kaija imbues this with expressionist gestures, such as a mechanical description of the plant where Simone worked, or the explosion that kicked off WWII. Her music is of subtle aural shifts, and we're convinced we've never seen the strings bow so much up and down the neck, to alter the color of the same note, rather than sideways.
The performance rested on the shoulders of Julia Bullock, who sang amplified and had to deal with Sellars' stage direction, which asked her to circle between lying on the floor, standing up, and leaning her forehead against a six-foot-tall light box. (At least, the silent dancer Sellars had put at La Passion de Simone's premiere in Vienna had the good taste to be absent.)
Bullock put a lot of energy and passion in Simone's long agony, and made it more lively than we'd expect from the terse text. Joana Carneiro, to complete the feminist theme, got the chamber ensemble to clearly bring out the subtleties of Saariaho's music. It's that music that stayed with us, walking back to the car after the performance, not Simone's starving death; we felt not guilt lining up for a late night ice-cream sandwich on Telegraph.