Thursday, January 10, 2019

Sydney Chamber Opera's La Passion de Simone sheds its light as a dedication to a martyr at Sydney Festival

Jane Sheldon as narrator/commentator
Simone Weil, subject of Sydney Chamber Opera’s Australian premiere of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone as part of Sydney Festival, was a smart young cookie. One of the 20th-century’s most practice-oriented French intellectuals, she pipped another more recognisable Simone, Simone de Beauvoir, at the post in graduating top of her class at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris. 

Displaying unstoppable commitment, Weil’s life was richly invested in purpose, though short-lived. At age 34, in 1943, Weil passed away in London while determinedly embarking on a hunger strike, after contracting tuberculosis, in protest against the mistreatment of her fellow people in Nazi-occupied France. Philosopher, political activist and pacifist, Weil vigorously defended the working class and disadvantaged in her quest to improve social conditions. Once her story becomes known, it etches itself permanently, making it rather unsurprising that it was immortalised in music and text as music theatre. It took two prominent female artists to give it form.

But Saariaho and her librettist Amin Maalouf’s 75-minute work is not an opera. More oratorio and meditative in style, during which Weil is seemingly elevated to martyrdom, its inspiration comes from the medieval tradition of the passion play. Sung and spoken in French and portrayed in 15 “stations” via narrator/commentator in just one solo role, a strong sense of Weil’s ideas is conveyed in various moments of her life without being directly episodic. 

Soprano Jane Sheldon is outstanding in the role as she projects her clear, penetrating and radiant sound with ethereal beauty from the large, spare stage area. Sheldon demonstrated her remarkable agility, technique and stamina in last year’s libretto-less work that gave voice to trauma in composer Damien Ricketson and director Adena Jacobs’ The Howling Girls. Here, Sheldon is again perfectly suited to the high demands with much of the vocal writing residing in the upper range. Sheldon gives it an unswerving and stunning polished-glass finish. 

Jane Sheldon as narrator/commentator
Around Sheldon, Saariaho’s inventive music creates an aura of eeriness and tension as part of a sound field that predominantly beats and vibrates in the low-lying scale. The overall musical tone evokes a generous mysticism, however, the libretto’s structural rigidity and peppered quotations become tedious. The creative team have the job to pick up what feels arid in the score. Directed by Imara Savage with simplicity to seemingly highlight Weil’s unshakable resolve, set and costume designer Elizabeth Gadsby, lighting designer Alexander Berlage and video artist Mike Daly meet the challenge with an effectively hypnotic, fused, monochromatic design. 

A chorus of four voices from The Song Company have little to give to the commentary but resonate effectively as one alongside the substantial 19-piece chamber orchestra in which all instrument sections are represented. On opening night, the musicianship was robust and pure as conductor Jack Symonds provided consistent command at the helm.

Silent pauses are golden, scale is distorted and a relentless shower pours over an indomitable woman appearing on a super-sized screen. All the while, Sheldon stands before her, transfixed and in communion with her ‘sister’ to the point of convulsing in sympathy with this woman’s selfless suffering - a powerful image and interpretation of both adoration and service of compassion. 

There is so much to be enjoyed in the production but, seductive as it is visually and musically, in the end the work’s abstract nature lingers for too long, leaving a sense that its ultra-intellectual writing runs counter to what is most compelling about a woman who championed the disadvantaged. 

La Passion de Simone 
Sydney Chamber Opera 
Bay 17, Carriageworks, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh
Until 11th January, 2019

Production Photos: Victor Frankowski

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