Kaija Saariaho is the guest of honor at the 40th edition of the Musica Festival in Strasbourg. The first weekend opens at the Théâtre du Maillon with the French premiere of the new production (by Aleksi Barrière) of his opera “Only the Sound remains”:
After the staging of Peter Sellars for the world premiere of this opera in Amsterdam then in Paris (our review), this new production by Aleksi Barrière (son of the composer) inaugurated last year in Tokyo then performed in the Venice Biennale is coming to France for the first time. Composed like a diptych of Japanese nô theatre, always strong (inspired by Tsunemasa) and Feather Mantle (inspired by hagoromo), the work splits into two tableaux, like two acts of the same work. Written in English, the libretto is the result of an adaptation of these two plays by the poet Ezra Pound from translations by Ernest Fenollosa. From this successive chain of translations of traditional texts, the music of Kaija Saariaho and the direction of Aleksi Barrière operate a synthesis between nô theater and contemporary universe. Faithful to the aesthetics of emptiness specific to nô, the scenography is limited to a frontal succession of three panels of light canvas on which are projected figures drawn with a black brush (thus evoking Japanese calligraphy) and the shadows of the characters, placed at front of the stage or between the panels. In the second part, a single vertical panel, on which shimmering colors and vegetal motifs are projected, is placed in the middle of the scene and no doubt evokes the feathered coat belonging to the angel.
First as a priest, then as a fisherman, the American baritone Bryan Murray embodies this character of the visible and rational world who usually plays the role of waki (“the one who is next”) in the nô theater. This character shines through perfectly in the acting of the baritone: dressed soberly in black, his movements are hesitant, sometimes clumsy, until they freeze in immobility to give way to the second character. It is through music and in contact with the supernatural that his gestures become more flexible: when he mimes the playing of the lute (made sound by a solo of kantele, traditional Finnish zither), the precision of his gesture takes on gigantic appearances through his shadow projected on the back canvas, as if the supernatural creature to come were already present. Bryan Murray reveals a deep timbre with warm and thick bass. Its powerful vocal projection underlines a perfect pronunciation, almost percussive, so much the consonants are accentuated.
Consideration of waki, the second character is carried by the ethereal voice of the Polish countertenor Michał Sławecki who successively plays the ghost, then the angel. Both light and solid, its treble spins, descending glissandi and trills with accuracy. In order to suggest the celestial character of the character, his voice is particularly modified by the electronic effects which characterize the works of Kaija Saariaho. In Feather Mantle in particular, his voice is processed by echo effects and delays while he continues his part without the slightest lack of accuracy. Dressed entirely in white, with a straight and supple body, the countertenor convinces with his piercing gaze and his sequences of dance steps with his double, the Japanese dancer Kaiji Moriyama. Sometimes made visible by its shadow, sometimes on the front of the stage, it embodies the duplication of the angel and the specter by spinning on itself, and by linking a rapid succession of arm and hand movements.
Placed on the right side of the stage (Courtyard side), location which is also that of the choir in the nô theater, the vocal quartet formed by the soloists of the Chamber Choir of the Palace of Catalan Music (where the production will go next month ) reveals with finesse the harmonies that weave the polyphony, and extend the instrumental timbres through sighs and onomatopoeia.
As a master of textures and acoustic spaces, Kaija Saariaho gives the small instrumental ensemble much more than the accompanying role assigned to it in nô theatre. Her role is primarily sound: thanks to the amplification of each instrument, the composer achieves a spatialized and enveloping resonance. Under the meticulous direction of Ernest Martínez Izquierdo, the ensemble is also characterized by its symbolic meaning: the presence of the bass flutes then piccolo recalls the human breath, the gong and the drums refer to the Far East, while the kantele , played by Eija Kankaanranta, is the European and personal touch of the Finnish composer.
Only the sound remains… as well as the endless applause and cheers in honor of the composer led onto the stage in a wheelchair by Aleksi Barrière.